CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, (Reuters) – Venezuela’s socialist government and opposition will hold surprise talks on Sunday amid a worsening political standoff and protests since the suspension of a referendum drive to remove unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.
The two sides will meet on Margarita island to talk amid the oil-rich country’s brutal economic crisis, the government, opposition, and the Vatican’s envoy to Venezuela said today.
“This dialogue is now crystallizing,” Socialist Party official Jorge Rodriguez told reporters. He said the Vatican and regional bloc UNASUR will accompany the talks.
Past conversations between the bitterly polarized sides have led to little progress.
The opposition says Maduro is inept and must leave office before the crisis worsens while he vows not to be pushed out by a power-hungry elite seeking a coup.
Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, made an unannounced trip to the Vatican on Monday to meet Pope Francis, who urged him to alleviate people’s suffering to solve the crisis.
The Vatican agreed in September to accompany a dialogue between Maduro and his foes, although formal rapprochement had yet to happen.
There was no indication Maduro would participate in Sunday’s talks.
The opposition is calling for nationwide protests on Wednesday as Venezuela’s third year of recession has many skipping meals due to widespread food shortages and spiraling prices.
Several hundred students today burned rubbish and set up roadblocks in the volatile border city of San Cristobal near Colombia. The city, a hotbed of anti-Maduro sentiment, was the site of the worst violence during protests two years ago that led to 43 deaths around the nation.
“We want freedom!” chanted the protesters, who closed several roads under the watch of police and troops.
Students held scattered protests in other places around Venezuela, including the capital Caracas, but mainstream opposition leaders were holding fire for Wednesday’s rallies dubbed “The Takeover of Venezuela.”
Foes say Maduro, 53, has veered openly into dictatorship by sidelining the opposition-led congress, jailing opponents and then leaning on compliant judicial and electoral authorities to stop the referendum.
Many of Venezuela’s 30 million people fear the standoff will create more unrest in a nation already exhausted by political confrontation, a plunging economy and rampant crime.
Ramping up the crisis, the opposition-led National Assembly this weekend began proceedings to put Maduro on trial for violating democracy. Still, the trial is unlikely to get traction, given the government and Supreme Court say congress has legitimatized itself.