BOGOTA, Colombia -- For more than six hours, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition traded barbs and recriminations during a nationally televised event aimed at ending the country’s nine-week long civil conflict. But by the time the meeting ground to a halt early Friday, no concessions had been made except a promise to meet again on Tuesday.
Both sides had gone into the session with low expectations, but there was hope that tangible results might come out of it. Maduro had told the country that the meeting would bring positive “surprises” for the opposition. But as the 8 p.m. session dragged into early Friday, the two sides remained predictably at odds.
Even so, some saw the encounter as a positive step in a country where the government and opposition rarely meet, much less exchange ideas.
“We have the obligation to know each other and recognize each other,” Maduro said at the end of the session. “I believe in the good faith of all you.… I’m not trying to flatter you. On the contrary, it would be a political win for me if I destroyed you at this moment.”
The meeting, which was brokered by South American foreign ministers, comes after two months of anti-government protests have left at least 39 dead on both sides of the political divide. Even as the reunion was taking place there were reports of barricades and demonstrators in opposition strongholds of eastern Caracas.
Gathering at the presidential palace and flanked by portraits of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar, both factions stuck to their well-worn arguments. The opposition accused the government of hijacking public institutions, squelching dissent and ruining the economy during its 16 years in power. The administration accused its foes of trying to win through violent protests what they’ve been unable to achieve at the polls.
Foreign Minister Elías Jaua said the opposition had been trying to undermine the government since 2002, when the late President Hugo Chávez was ousted in a short-lived coup that the administration maintains was backed by the United States. The protests against Maduro — 12 years later — are another sign of the opposition’s anti-democratic bent, Jaua said.
“Once again, they’re calling for the rejection of a president, elected by the people, through violence,” he said.
Two-time opposition presidential candidate and Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles was the last of the delegates to speak. He blasted the administration for the country’s soaring crime and crumbling economy. Venezuela has the second-highest murder rate in the world after Honduras, and is being rocked by food shortages and record-high inflation.
Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro last April, said the president needed to tone down his rhetoric and recognize that he was also the leader of almost half the country that didn’t vote for him.
“How are you going to ask for respect if you are so disrespectful?” Capriles asked. “How are you going to ask for the country to accept you when you call them fascists and threaten them? They’re not going to respect you. And it’s very difficult to govern a country with half of it against you.”
As Capriles spoke, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, at the other end of the table, chastised him on Twitter.
“This fascist murderer Capriles has problems,” Cabello wrote. “He doesn’t understand that he lost the elections in April.”
Not everyone thinks the opposition should be at the table. On Friday, former opposition Deputy María Corina Machado, who was stripped of her seat last month, called the talks a “farce” and said that democracy could only be won through street protests.
David Smolansky, the opposition mayor of El Hatillo, part of greater Caracas, said those who attended the meeting were playing into the government’s hand.
“We were not there last night because we have conditions to participate in the supposed dialogue that ended up being a debate,” he said in a statement. “We’re not against dialogue but the government has to demonstrate its good faith.”
Those at the meeting said they will use future meetings to push for concessions, including the release of jailed protesters, the return of political exiles and the establishment of a truth commission to study allegations of human-rights abuses.
For its part, the government has said the talks are not a “negotiation” or a place to make “deals,” but simply a forum for dialogue.
Even so, Henry Allup, the head of the opposition Acción Democrática party, told Televen television Friday that it had been a positive event.
“I honestly think the country got a complete picture from both sides,” he said. “Now the people can evaluate and make their own decisions.”