Venezuela’s government and opposition have agreed to launch talks in the hope of settling the political crisis in a volatile country stricken by food shortages.
The national dialogue aims to calm tensions after the opposition accused socialist President Nicolas Maduro of trampling on democracy by blocking their bid for a vote on removing him.
Months of tension were threatening to boil over after authorities enraged the opposition last week by annulling their drive for a recall referendum.
With the opposition vowing mass street protests as analysts warned of an increased risk of violent unrest, the Vatican stepped in on on Sunday.
Papal envoy Emil Paul Tscherrig joined a meeting in Caracas of government and opposition representatives and announced afterwards they had agreed to launch formal talks.
Maduro meanwhile received a private audience at the Vatican with Pope Francis.
“I thanked him in the name of Venezuela for all the support, so that at last, definitively, a formal dialogue could be started in Venezuela between the opposition and the legitimate Bolivarian government that I lead,” Maduro said in televised comments afterwards.
In Caracas, Tscherrig announced that the sides had agreed to launch formal talks on October 30 on the Venezuelan Caribbean island of Margarita.
That appeared to be the most significant gesture of appeasement by both sides since the opposition took control of the legislature in January following an election victory.
Sunday’s preliminary meeting “took place in a respectful, cordial atmosphere of political will,” Tscherrig told a news conference.The talks will seek “to improve the economic, social, political and institutional circumstances that are fundamental for democratic harmony.”
In a private audience with Maduro, the pope urged the parties “to show courage in pursuing the path of sincere and constructive dialogue, to alleviate the suffering of the people, particularly of the poor, and to promote renewed social cohesion,” a Vatican statement said.
Tscherrig’s announcement came as a surprise after a weekend of rising tension.
The opposition had earlier vowed to fight what it called Maduro’s “dictatorship” as it embarked on a new strategy to oust him.
It threatened to put him on trial and stage massive nationwide protests from tomorrow.
Maduro’s opponents were furious over a decision by electoral authorities last Thursday to block a referendum on cutting short the presidency of the man they accuse of driving Venezuela, once a booming oil giant, to the brink of collapse.