Venezuela formally invites Vatican to mediate talks to end protests

Cardinal Pietro Parolin

The Venezuelan government petitioned the Vatican’s secretary of state to help mediate upcoming talks between President Nicolás Maduro’s administration and opposition parties, aiming to quell two months of protests. Violent clashes between protesters and security forces have led to at least 39 deaths and hundreds of arrests.

The government invited Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the most senior Vatican official after the pope, to Caracas for talks expected to start as soon as Thursday, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said.

The Holy See is willing to mediate in the crisis in Venezuela under the right conditions, a Vatican spokesman said, but didn’t provide further details.

The 59-year-old cardinal is a veteran diplomat who served as the Vatican’s deputy foreign minister from 2002 to 2009 and was posted in Venezuela for four years before departing in 2013.

Both sides in politically polarized Venezuela are hoping the Catholic Church can play the role of a “good faith witness” as they come to the table to discuss how to ease tensions in the oil-rich country.

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Venezuela’s national police fire tear gas at anti-government protesters during riots in Caracas April 6, 2014.

The uprising began in early February with university students in the western border state of Táchira and has spread throughout Venezuela as opponents of Mr. Maduro vent frustration with soaring inflation, shortages of basic goods and rampant crime. Critics of the government say those problems are evidence of the failures of the socialist revolution started by late leader Hugo Chávez 15 years ago and which his political heir, Mr. Maduro, aims to carry forward.

A delegation of foreign ministers from the Union of South American Nations, or Unasur, came to Venezuela this week to help broker talks but critics have accused the regional body of being too closely allied with the government. “We need an impartial voice to be able to believe in the process of dialogue,” said Enrique Marquez, head of Un Nuevo Tiempo, one of the parties that makes up the opposition alliance.

In preliminary negotiations on Tuesday, the government and opposition representatives agreed to the formal meetings, which in addition to the Vatican will also include foreign ministers from Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador as mediators.

“I think this meeting lays the foundation for frank, face-to-face, direct and respectful dialogue to move forward toward a process of reconciliation,” Mr. Maduro said in a national address Tuesday night. The leftist leader, however, then went on to say that “I would be a traitor if I started to negotiate the revolution,” casting doubts over concessions he was ready to make.

Anti-government protesters and students block an avenue in front of the United Nations office with tents in Chacao district in Caracas, Venezuela, April 1, 2014

Earlier this week, the opposition coalition listed a four-point agenda for dialogue to succeed. It included a call to release alleged political prisoners, disarming pro-government paramilitary groups, the creation of an independent truth commission, as well as a push for a separation of powers in a country where they say public institutions like the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council do the bidding of the ruling Socialist party.

The protests have been costly for both sides, though the opposition has the least leverage entering the discussions, said Luis Vicente Leon, head of local pollster Datanalisis. Mr. Maduro’s approval rating has slid some 10 percentage points since the beginning of the year, settling at 41.5% in March, according to Datanalisis’s latest survey.

But the opposition has painted itself into a corner by supporting protests that have no legal means of unseating the government and appear to be waning outside of a handful of hard-line bastions.

“That doesn’t mean that the negotiations are good,” Mr. Leon said. “The government is entering these negotiations trying to manipulate the process. It will be difficult for the opposition to come out victorious in any way.”

The coming talks have also caused fractures in the opposition-coalition known by its Spanish acronym MUD, with some members willing to push ahead with the talks even without guarantees that their prerequisites are met by the government.

“They should not participate as the MUD but as individual organizations because they are not representing the position of the entire coalition,” said Luis Florido, a national official for the Voluntad Popular party, whose founder and leader, Leopoldo Lopez was arrested in February for allegedly inciting deadly violence by encouraging the demonstrations. “We are the ones who have called the protests. If it wasn’t for us the government would not be calling for talks and Unasur would not be here.”

Mr. Florido, who is his party’s representative to the MUD, said that other opposition holdouts including Maria Corina Machado, a leader who was stripped of her congressional post by the ruling party-dominated parliament last month and Antonio Ledezma, the metropolitan mayor of Caracas.

But Mr. Marquez, whose party is participating in the talks, assured that while they have agreed to this “complex and long process,” it doesn’t mean that they are giving in to the government.

“It’s up to the president to show that he is serious about taking actions. You cannot discard the possibility that without real gestures, we don’t just walk away from the table,” he added.