[BBC]– The Venezuelan government and opposition parties have met for the first time this year to try to resolve the country’s deep political crisis. President Nicolas Maduro attended the first of several rounds, supervised by a Vatican envoy and other mediators.
The opposition wants a referendum on whether Mr Maduro should step down. For its part, the left-wing government accuses the opposition of fomenting street violence and wants it to drop “neo-liberal” economic policies.
The meeting, at a museum in the west of the capital, Caracas, follows a general strike and huge opposition rallies. Mr Maduro shook hands with the five opposition leaders including Jesus Torrealba, who heads an umbrella group – the Democratic Unity coalition.
“There is no alternative to dialogue and meeting in search of the nation’s common interests,” Mr Maduro said as he arrived. Vatican envoy Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli urged both sides to engage in serious dialogue to defuse the mounting political crisis.
“The Pope is following the situation of this country very closely and hopes this process can continue peacefully,” he said.
Former political leaders from Panama, the Dominican Republic and Spain, including former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, are also helping to mediate. On Friday, opposition leaders in Venezuela organised a general strike to push for a referendum on removing President Maduro from power.
Many shops, businesses and schools stayed closed but adherence to the strike was patchy and poorer areas largely ignored it.
Hundreds of thousands of people rallied against President Maduro last Wednesday angered that a recall referendum process had been suspended. The electoral authorities ruled earlier this month that the process of gathering enough signatures to bring about a vote had been marred by fraud.
Supporters of President Maduro also took to the streets. The government and opposition are at loggerheads over Venezuela’s dire economic problems which have led to food shortages, lack of medical supplies and regular power cuts.
The inflation rate, already the world’s highest, is expected to spiral even further next year.