Venezuela mulls Vatican as go-between

FOR ‘GOOD OF COUNTRY’::The Venezuelan president said he would come to the table with the opposition with an external observer to break the impasse

AP, CARACAS

Sun, Mar 30, 2014 - Page 7

The Vatican says it is willing to help facilitate talks between Venezuela’s government and its opponents aimed at ending weeks of deadly unrest that have paralyzed much of the country.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday said he was willing to sit down with the opposition under the watch of an outside observer.

Maduro floated the name of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who served as the Holy See’s ambassador to Venezuela before being called to Rome last year.

Vatican spokesman Reverend Federico Lombardi told reporters on Friday that the Holy See and Parolin were “certainly willing and desirous to do whatever is possible for the good and serenity of the country.”

He said Parolin, in particular, “knows and loves” Venezuela.

Yet he added that the Vatican needed to understand the expectations of its intervention and whether it could bring about a “desired outcome.”

Such a study is under way, he added.

Catholicism is a touchstone for critics of Maduro’s socialist administration, and opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles, both known to sport rosaries, have been pressing the Vatican to take up the cause.

Maduro also heaped praise on Pope Francis after meeting with the first Latin American pontiff last year.

Although the church may be an acceptable go-between, the road to compromise in this deeply polarized nation is a long one.

Hardliners on both sides continue to reject compromise even with at least 32 people killed and hundreds injured, many of them during clashes between protesters and Venezuelan security forces sometimes joined by pro-government militias.

As soon as Maduro on Thursday agreed to talks with the help of an outside facilitator, several of the parties forming the opposition Democratic Unity alliance questioned the proposal, saying it could dampen the protest movement’s momentum.

Maduro has also expressed skepticism about his opponents’ motives, pointing to much of the opposition’s refusal to take part in earlier “peace conferences” proposed by his administration.

“Poor guy, they’re going to waste his time,” he told supporters on Thursday night, referring to Parolin.

For its part, the opposition says Maduro is the one who is not negotiating in good faith, and it wants to see Lopez and dozens of jailed activists released, as well as an end to a crackdown on protests.

“The government says it wants peace, but it doesn’t respect people with different ideologies,” said protester Jose Antonio Campuzano as he surveyed a candlelight vigil kept around the clock by protesters at the Caracas plaza where clashes with Venezuelan security forces have been the most violent.

“Dialogue is impossible when it’s: ‘You’re with us or against us,’” he said, brushing back tears as he looked at photographs of those killed during the unrest, arranged in the shape of a cross.

Men and women walking past on their way to work chimed in, calling Maduro a liar and shameless.

The basic lack of trust between the parties and their conflicting goals are almost sure to doom any talks, said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

The protesters want to remove Maduro from power, while the Venezuelan president wants those protesting to return home.

Neither side has expressed an interest in finding a middle ground.

Maduro may also be better off devoting his energies to shoring up support among the poor, who are also suffering the effects of 57 percent inflation and chronic shortages, but have so far failed to join the protests in large numbers.

Yet a religious representative may have more chances of succeeding than the alternative agreeable to Maduro: regional diplomats who would be tainted by the ideological divide across Latin America, a schism in many ways fostered by late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s financial support for like-minded, anti-US governments.

Even if neither side wishes to compromise, it would be politically difficult to reject an envoy sent by the wildly popular Francis in a country where more than 90 percent of the population is Catholic.