Opposition rifts widen in Venezuela

Reuters, CARACAS

Tue, Mar 11, 2014 - Page 7

As violent protests in Venezuela alienate moderates in the opposition and show no signs of toppling Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the socialist leader’s call for talks is deepening divisions between his rivals.

The country’s worst civil unrest in a decade has killed at least 20 people, including supporters of both sides and members of the security forces, since early last month.

Day after day, thousands of opposition supporters march peacefully in cities around the nation, demanding political change and an end to high inflation, shortages of basic foods in stores, and one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Then every night, hooded opposition militants emerge around a square in eastern Caracas brandishing rocks and Molotov cocktails, clashing with riot police and turning one of the capital’s most affluent neighborhoods into a battlefield.

The violence is fueling tensions inside the opposition, with moderates scared it could spin further out of control and tarnish the cause of peaceful political change in the future.

Maduro appears to have weathered the worst of the demonstrations on the streets for now and is repeatedly offering talks, creating a new dilemma for opposition leaders.

So far, they have put tough conditions on any discussions, saying they refuse to be part of a “photo opportunity” and that they fear the government has no intention of addressing issues such as corruption, impunity and political prisoners.

The Democratic Unity opposition coalition said on Friday last week that it would only sit down for dialogue with Maduro if the meeting were mediated by someone “of good faith” — and broadcast live.

“We’re sick of violence. Everyone is being attacked,” it said in a statement. “We’re showing our hand to the public... [We want] true dialogue, a clear agenda and equal conditions.”

However, with pleas for talks coming from as far afield as the White House, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Pope Francis, the refusal to attend any discussions to date has drawn criticism, including from within the coalition’s ranks.

Opposition lawmaker Hiram Gaviria quit his party Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Time) and the coalition on Friday last week over its ban on attending talks at the Miraflores presidential palace.

Gaviria blamed the unrest on the government, which he said had imposed a broken social and economic model, and used 15 years of “hate speech” to undermine its opponents, but he said he would meet anyone, anywhere, to try to avoid more violence, even if dialogue stood little chance of success.

“How many more deaths must there be before we talk and find understanding?” he said. “There has to be dialogue.”