BOGOTA, Colombia -- In what might be the first step toward ending Venezuela’s two-month-long political crisis, the government and opposition leaders agreed Tuesday to begin formal peace talks that will be mediated by the Vatican and the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador.
The agreement came after the two sides held an “exploratory meeting”’ earlier in the day to lay the groundwork for negotiations.
As he left the meeting, Vice President Jorge Arreaza said the talks would “touch on every issue that’s of interest to the country” and “lead toward justice and peace.”
Arreaza said the date of the first meeting would be set this week.
Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the executive director of the coalition of opposition parties known as the MUD, said both sides had agreed to televise their first formal meeting.
“This process has to take place in front of the world and Venezuela,” he said.
Even at this preliminary stage, however, some opposition voices were warning against capitulation.
Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of metropolitan Caracas, told Union radio that he was skeptical of the government’s intentions.
“For me, it’s one thing to engage in dialogue and it’s another to surrender,” he said.
Former opposition Deputy María Corina Machado, who has been at the vanguard of some protests, said talks shouldn’t take place unless all demonstrators were freed.
Since the anti-government protests began in earnest Feb. 12, the administration has arrested two opposition mayors and Leopoldo López, the head of the Voluntad Popular political party. More than 2,285 protesters have also been temporarily detained and 192 are still in jail, according to government figures.
“We cannot have dialogue with students detained, mayors detained and [López] detained, and while there’s repression,” Machado wrote on Twitter. “Students and the forces that are driving the protests have to be a part of the discussion.”
In the past, the MUD has called for the release of all “political prisoners” as a precondition to talks. But it’s unclear if those demands are still on the table.
What began as student-led protests in early February over soaring crime and a faltering economy have evolved into a nation-wide demonstration that has left at least 39 dead on both sides of the political divide. President Nicolás Maduro, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, has accused the United States and other governments of using the protests as cover to try to topple his socialist administration.
Aveledo said the plight of students would remain at the center of the agenda, and that negotiators would seek solutions “within the framework of the constitution.”
“The best antidote to violence is respect for the constitution,” he said.
Along with Aveledo, Lara State Gov. Henri Falcón and Omar Barboza, a leader of the Un Nuevo Tiempo political party, represented the opposition at Tuesday’s meeting.
On the government’s side were Maduro, Arreaza, first lady Cilia Flores, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua and Jorge Rodríguez, the mayor of Libertador, part of Greater Caracas.
Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate who is often seen as the standard bearer for the opposition, said the talks did not mean “giving up principles.”
“The people have every right to protest against the thousands of problems that don’t have solutions in our country,” he wrote on Twitter. “No one can take away that right.”
On Tuesday, Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza urged the opposition to negotiate.
“If they have preconditions, they should go to the dialogue and say they want this or that,” Insulza told the Miami Herald. “And then we can talk about other things, but they should not refuse going because that will be a mistake.”
Insulza was speaking at the Palm Beach Strategic Forum on Tuesday, where about 50 Venezuelan opposition supporters were protesting his appearance.
During the two-month crisis, the OAS has been accused of turning a blind eye to Venezuela. When then-Deputy Machado addressed the organization last month, members voted to keep her speech sealed, and Venezuela stripped her of her congressional seat afterward.
Insulza pushed back at the notion that the OAS was not doing enough to end the crisis.
“This is an organization of states. If the states don’t want to do anything, there’s no way the OAS or the secretary general can go against the will of the member countries,” he said. “That will be completely senseless.”
Miami Herald World Editor John Yearwood contributed to this report.