Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leaders began meeting Thursday night for talks aimed at ending a two-month long political crisis that has left at least three dozen dead and paralyzed swaths of the country.
As he opened the nationally televised session at the presidential palace, Maduro said he was willing to debate “any issue” and said the talks would be “good, intense and long.”
The meeting brought some of the country’s most influential politicians to the table, including two-time presidential candidate and Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles; the vice president; the head of the National Assembly; two opposition governors; and the head of the MUD coalition of opposition parties. But despite the political wattage it’s unclear how much either side is willing to give.
Maduro said the talks would not be a “negotiation” or a place to make “deals” but a space for “mutual tolerance.”
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But he has also hinted there might be concessions. Earlier in the day, he said he had “several surprises” for the opposition — “all of them good.”
Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the executive director of MUD, welcomed the televised talks, saying the government had suppressed free media and flooded state-run outlets with propaganda.
“The country needs to hear other voices,” he said.
Aveledo said the opposition planned to demand the freedom of those detained during the protests, the return of political exiles, and the establishment of a broad-based “truth commission.”
“We want dialogue without tricks or traps,” he said.
Maduro has been trying to get the opposition to the table since February, but a breakthrough came earlier this week with the intervention of South American diplomats.
The talks are being mediated by the foreign ministers of Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil along with the Vatican’s representative to Caracas, Aldo Giordano, who read a brief message from Pope Francis before the meeting began.
The opposition has been demanding amnesty for those arrested since protests began in earnest Feb. 12 and a thorough accounting of alleged human-rights abuses by the government.
The government has said it wants to stop the protests, which it says are part of a coup attempt being sponsored by the United States and others. As if to drive the point home, state-run television has been running documentaries about a short-lived, 2002 coup against the late President Hugo Chávez.
“We cannot accept violence as a means to take power,” Maduro said Thursday before the meeting. “Those who want political power only have one route: constitutional elections. That has to be made clear during this peace process.”
The government has responded to the crisis by jailing opposition leaders, including the head of the Voluntad Popular political party, Leopoldo López, and Daniel Ceballos and Vicenzo Scarano, the opposition mayors of San Cristóbal and San Diego. Some 190 protesters are still being detained.
More recently, the attorney general’s office said it would push to have Voluntad Popular declared an illegal organization.
Aveledo on Thursday called that move an attempt to “sabotage” the talks.
The opposition negotiators are also under pressure from more hard-line politicians who maintain that talks should not take place without government concessions.
What began as student protests in early February over soaring crime and economic malaise turned into national demonstrations that have left almost 600 injured and 39 dead on both sides of the political divide.
Venezuela got a reminder of its dismal security record again on Thursday, when the United Nations published its annual homicide statistics. According to the data, Venezuela was second only to Honduras as the most homicidal country, with a murder rate of 53.7 deaths per 100,000 people.