Venezuelan opposition boycotts ‘bad faith’ talks

 <span class="cutline_leadin">Grieving family:</span> Relatives of Jimmy Vargas, a student who died during a recent protest, weep beside his coffin during his funeral in San Cristobal, Venezuela.
Grieving family: Relatives of Jimmy Vargas, a student who died during a recent protest, weep beside his coffin during his funeral in San Cristobal, Venezuela.

Venezuela’s opposition bailed out of a “National Peace Conference” scheduled for Wednesday, saying the government was acting in bad faith as two weeks of violent protests have left more than a dozen dead and scores injured.

The talks were intended to bring civil society and political leaders together, but hours before they were to start, the coalition of opposition parties, known as the MUD, said they would not participate in what they called a “simulacrum” of negotiations.

MUD Executive Director Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said his organization received the invitation after 10 p.m. Tuesday and that the government had not laid out an agenda.

Aveledo said he tried to get clarity from the vice president’s office on Wednesday, to no avail. But he underscored that the opposition wants to talk.

“It’s time to face the crude reality and speak sincerely and seriously,” Aveledo wrote to the government, “without tricks or hidden cards, and with clear rules and transparency.”

He also said any negotiations would need to start with a clear agenda and be moderated by a “national or international” arbiter.

National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello hammered the decision.

“It’s confirmed,” he wrote on Twitter. “The MUD doesn’t want peace. They decided not to accept the invitation . . They’re only moved by political calculations.”

Other opposition voices, including media outlets and business groups, were expected to participate.

The impasse comes amid growing international concern. On Wednesday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Pope Francis urged the country’s politicians to put aside their differences and talk.

“I sincerely hope that violence and hostility will cease as soon as possible,” the pope said, according to the Vatican News Service, “and that the whole Venezuelan people, beginning with political leaders and institutions, will endeavor to promote reconciliation through mutual forgiveness and a sincere dialogue.”

Student protests began earlier this month over security concerns, but spread nationwide and now involve a laundry list of grievances. The demonstrations are among the most serious challenges President Nicolás Maduro has faced since taking office last year.

While government officials said the protests had left at least 13 dead, Maduro dramatically raised the body count Wednesday, telling a crowd of pro-government farmers who had marched to the presidential palace that the protests had led to “more than 50 deaths.”

Government foes accuse the administration of being heavy-handed and assassinating peaceful protesters. While the government has blamed the violence on “right-wing fascists,” it has also jailed a handful of its own security forces.

On Wednesday, a group of women led by the wife of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who was detained last week, marched on one of the headquarters of the Bolivarian National Guard to demand that it cease using violence against demonstrators.

The tensions come as the country is preparing to mark the first anniversary of the death of President Hugo Chávez on March 5.

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