As Venezuela braces for a new wave of nationwide demonstrations against the government, the opposition appears splintered over whether or not to negotiate with an administration they have accused of launching a “coup d’état”.
The opposition coalition, known as Democratic Unity, had been united in calling for marches across the country on Wednesday, after electoral officials last week ended any chance of holding a referendum this year to force President Nicolás Maduro out of office.
On Monday, DU head Jesús Torrealba surprised his allies by announcing plans to hold Vatican-brokered talks with Maduro’s Socialist government, but the idea was swiftly rejected by other key figures in the opposition movement.
Maduro, on a whirlwind trip to oil producing countries in the Middle East, stopped over at the Vatican on Monday where he met Pope Francis, who urged the beleaguered Venezuelan leader to alleviate the suffering of his people.
Amid a deepening economic meltdown, Venezuelans are facing severe shortages of food and medicine that Human Rights Watch called “a profound humanitarian crisis”.
“At last we are installing a dialogue between the opposition and the legitimate government,” Maduro said in Rome before heading home.
But the main opposition parties said they would not participate in the talks to be held Sunday on the Venezuelan island of Margarita. “No dialogue has begun in Venezuela,” said Henrique Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate. “These devils want to use the good faith of Pope Francis to buy more time.”
Previous attempts at dialogue between the two sides have proved fruitless. Now even more polarized than before, the opposition insists on pushing Maduro out of power through democratic means.
On Tuesday the opposition-controlled national assembly voted to launch a political trial against him for “breaking the constitutional order” of the country – a move that the government dismissed as meaningless. The National Assembly ordered Maduro to appear at a session next Tuesday - which he will almost certainly refuse to do.
Others in the assembly opened a new front, targeting Maduro’s nationality, with “birthers” claiming he was born in Colombia, and therefore ineligible to be president.
Maduro argues that the opposition is trying to stage a coup against him and that the country’s economic woes are the result of an international conspiracy.
Venezuela’s economy is expected to contract by 10% this year, with inflation at 475%. That figure could surge to 1,660% next year, according to forecasts by the IMF.
Polls show more than 75% of Venezuelans reject Maduro, and the opposition had hoped to hold a recall referendum against the president before he made it halfway through his six-year term. That would have triggered new elections, and given the opposition a chance to take power after 17 years under the leftist governments of the late Hugo Chávez, and his successor, Maduro.
The opposition was ready to begin collecting signatures of 20% of eligible voters on Wednesday to continue the recall drive but electoral officials suspended the process after allegations of fraud in the initial signature effort. At the same time it postponed regional elections to be held later this year.
That prompted critics to cry foul, saying Venezuela had become a “dictatorship”. Organizers of Wednesday’s protests have called for peaceful marches but they will be a new test of the government’s tolerance for dissent in the increasingly tense nation.