Nicolas Maduro to meet opposition to try and end Venezuelan unrest

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2014, 11:25pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2014, 11:25pm

President Nicolas Maduro's government and Venezuela's main opposition group have agreed to begin talks intended to halt the nation's worst political unrest in a decade.

Representatives of the Vatican and the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) would mediate, both sides said on Tuesday.

Clashes between security forces and pro-government militants on one side, and hooded demonstrators blocking streets on the other, have killed 39 people since mid-February, according to official figures.

The dead have included government supporters, opponents, and members of the security forces.

Maduro, the 51-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez, led the government team at Tuesday's talks, which were the first sit-down meeting with the Democratic Unity (MUD) opposition coalition since the troubles began.

"We spoke frankly, directly and respectfully. There were moments of tension, but we agreed to start a cycle of meetings," Maduro said after the meeting in a 17th century colonial building that houses the foreign ministry.

"Neither will we try and convert them to Bolivarian socialism nor will they convert us to capitalism," he said, using a reference to Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar.

The formal talks are set to begin today. On the agenda will be Venezuela's crime epidemic and economic problems - issues high on the litany of complaints from demonstrators in the streets since early February.

The opposition is also insisting on the release of jailed protest leader Leopoldo Lopez and dozens of imprisoned students.

Tuesday's meeting, brokered by visiting Unasur foreign ministers, may take some heat out of a crisis that has also caused hundreds of injuries and arrests, and proved a further drag on Venezuela's ailing economy.

But they may disappoint hardliners in the opposition, who had been hoping to inspire a "Venezuelan spring" and view Maduro's exit as the only solution for the country.