Seeking to defuse the nation's worst political unrest in a decade, Venezuela's warring politicians are set to meet today in a live television broadcast.
The peace talks, brokered in part by regional leaders, are the latest effort to end nearly two months of anti-government protests that have left at least 39 dead and hundreds more injured.
While opposition leaders had previously rejected President Nicolás Maduro's calls for dialogue, he now has the ear of Venezuela's main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). Two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and other coalition leaders agreed to negotiate with the president in the presence of mediators from Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, and the Vatican.
Across Venezuela's political divide, many greeted the announcement of peace talks with relief. But while the talks may offer a respite from ongoing violence, many remain unconvinced they will end the crisis. One reason is that many of the government's harshest critics are not involved and have pledged to continue their protests over Mr. Maduro's stewardship of a rocky economy and a laundry list of related social problems.
"It's certainly a positive first step," says Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political consultant. "Yet the question remains whether the MUD can convince protesters to accept dialogue, let alone any agreements that come from the negotiations."
So far, strident opposition activists and students – the backbone of the protest movement – remain on the sidelines. Notably, the opposition's Popular Will party has refused to participate unless the government releases detained protesters. Hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested since February. About 170 people, including security personnel, have been charged in connection to the unrest.
The most prominent detainee is Leopoldo López, the Popular Will's firebrand leader jailed in February on charges of inciting violence after he called for nation-wide demonstrations. His party isn't represented at the peace talks.
Preconditions for talks
Ahead of today's meeting, opposition leaders laid down four preconditions for President Maduro: amnesty for alleged political prisoners; creation of an independent truth commission; disarmament of pro-government paramilitary groups; and an end to alleged government interference in independent institutions, such as the Supreme Court and National Electoral Council. They also insisted that the meeting be broadcast on television.
"We must tell the truth in the midst of these lies, no one can remain silent," Mr. Capriles, a state governor, said yesterday, confirming his participation. "I am open to dialogue in favor of peace and nation building."
Elsa Cardozo, a professor of international relations at the Central University of Venezuela, cautions that even with international mediation, the two side are far apart. Protesters' demands to tackle issues such as rampant crime, spiraling inflation, and shortages of basic consumer goods would necessitate sweeping changes to government policies.
"Both sides will focus their efforts on easing the current tensions, but will probably do little in terms of solving the country's fundamental problems," she says.
Juan Requesens, student council president at the Central University of Venezuela, welcomed the latest effort to end the violence. And while student leaders are also open to the idea of negotiations, he says they would not end their protests anytime soon.
"Regardless if we sit down or not, if we negotiate or not, the student movement will remain in the streets," he says.