CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov 11 – Venezuela’s political rivals are to sit down at the negotiating table Friday to resume fraught talks on the country’s volatile crisis.
Socialist President Nicolas Maduro and his opponents declared a “truce” 10 days ago to ease tension in a country struck by food shortages.
Their political struggle had provoked mass street protests and stern warnings from the government.
With Pope Francis’s blessing, they agreed to sit down to Vatican-mediated talks starting Friday.
The outlook appears hostile.
“The truce that we agreed ends on Friday,” said the opposition MUD coalition leader Jesus Torrealba.
“We are going to the dialogue table to demand that the people’s right to vote be restored.”
Under the truce, the opposition suspended mass street protests and moves to hold a political trial against Maduro.
But the sides continued exchanging insults and refused to back down from their clashing demands.
The center right-dominated opposition insists on holding a referendum on removing Maduro from power but his allies have blocked that effort.
Under constitutional rules, the opposition must secure a referendum before January 10 if it wants to remove Maduro. Otherwise he or his allies will keep power until 2019.
“We Venezuelans do not have much time,” said senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
“We cannot spend months sitting here face to face. There has to be a change.”
Venezuela is rich in oil but short of food.
An economic crisis sparked by falling crude prices has led to shortages of basic supplies and soaring inflation.
The opposition blames Maduro’s economic management. He calls the crisis a capitalist conspiracy.
“I am not obsessed with being a presidential candidate nor with being reelected,” Maduro said on Thursday.
“Fixing the economy is my obsession.”
Small crowds of students resumed rallies in Caracas on Thursday.
“We are going to stay in the streets,” said student leader Hasler Iglesias.
“We demand a timetable for elections, or the relaunch of the referendum.”
Analysts say there is a risk of violent unrest. Clashes at anti-government riots in 2014 left 43 people dead.
Maduro has the public backing of the military high command and control of most state institutions.
“The likelihood that the government in negotiations will accept a referendum or early elections is practically zero,” said analyst Luis Vicente Leon.
“Maduro is absolutely certain that would mean handing them his head.”
Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election adds tension and uncertainty to the situation.
Venezuela’s foreign ministry said Maduro had told US Secretary of State John Kerry on the phone that he hoped for “positive work” with Trump.
But Maduro has had testy relations even with the more moderate current US leader Barack Obama. He accuses Washington of plotting his overthrow.
Obama’s administration had nevertheless boosted contact with Venezuelan authorities in a bid to ease the crisis.
But Obama only has two months left in office.
“Trump’s aggressive and threatening discourse will be the perfect excuse to strengthen the theory about Venezuela’s external enemies,” Leon said.