CARACAS: Following weeks of violent protests, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday agreed to having an outside “witness” to ease stalled talks with his political opposition.
The deal, brokered by a group of South American foreign ministers, is aimed at ending the impasse between Maduro’s leftist government and his opponents, some of whom have been jailed for allegedly inciting violence.
Since early February at least 34 people have been killed in anti-government protests fueled by anger over soaring crime, hyperinflation and a shortage of basic household goods. Some 500 have also been injured.
The protests have been losing steam in the past weeks, though there are still occasional outbursts of street violence.
Maduro called for talks soon after the protests began, but the main Venezuelan opposition group has refused, saying that they don’t trust the government, want mediators and demand the release of all jailed protesters.
“You want a witness? Let’s go with a witness then,” said Maduro at an official event broadcast simultaneously on all TV networks and radio stations.
After a two-day visit to Venezuela, ministers from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) said Thursday that Maduro had agreed to have a “good faith witness to facilitate dialogue.”
Maduro said that he would accept that the UNASUR “elect a group of foreign ministers that could be witnesses and sit down” at talks with the opposition, but warned that he would accept no conditions” or preconditions “because I’m not putting any.”
Maduro agreed to the talks after ministers - who visited Caracas at Venezuela’s request — met with the opposition, students, religious and human rights groups, and the president himself.
The ministers proposed to Maduro “an international witness so that the opposition now will agree to meet,” the president said.
Two opposition mayors have been arrested and sent to prison, while an opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, is in jail awaiting trial. Scores of other protesters are also behind bars.
Maduro — elected to office one year ago by a wafer-thin margin — has attacked the opposition as “fascists” and claimed that they want to topple his government with help from the CIA. In his speech Maduro agreed to tone down the rhetoric. “There will be no more words of that type from this little mouth, I will no longer say ‘Chucky Lucky,’” said Maduro. The reference was to the knife-wielding horror movie doll, and it is Maduro’s nickname for Lopez. A moderate opposition group said Wednesday it was ready to talk to Maduro, in a rare potential step forward.
“We are ready for a transparent, balanced and fair dialogue, a public one with a national or international good-faith facilitator... that can mediate if needed,” Ramon Aveledo told broadcaster Globovision.
Aveledo, of the Democratic Unity group (MUD) that seeks reform without ousting the elected socialist regime, spoke after meeting with the UNASUR ministers.
In Washington, a US official said sanctions are being weighed if Venezuela fails to foster serious talks to resolve the crisis.
Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson urged Maduro’s government to provide “democratic space for the opposition”.
Sanctions could be an “important tool” if the possibility of dialogue between the government and its adversaries stalls, she said. Speaking in Spanish to reporters via teleconference, Jacobson said the United States is considering “peaceful measures,” ruling out potential military action as an option. But Washington would first consult with its allies in the Americas before any sanctions. “We believe that it’s very important to work with our allies in the region on the way to implement any type of sanction,” so that any such measures would be more effective, Jacobson said. Washington and Caracas have not had ambassadors since 2010, even though the United States is oil-rich Venezuela’s most important customer for its main export.
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