Buenos Aires (AFP) - If upcoming Vatican-backed talks between Venezuela's bitterly antagonistic government and opposition fail, the result could well be "bloodshed," a papal envoy warned Saturday.
"If one delegation or the other ends the dialogue, it's not the pope but the Venezuelan people who will lose, because the path then could truly be one of blood," Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli told the Argentine daily La Nacion in Rome, after visiting Caracas.
Both sides are due to start talks next Friday aimed at finding some way to resolve Venezuela's deepening political and economic crisis.
The stakes are high for their oil-dependent nation, which is suffering a scarcity of food and basic goods, and which its unpopular President Nicolas Maduro has increasingly put under the control of his loyal military.
The agreement to hold talks, jointly brokered by the Vatican and the Union of South American Nations, and backed by the United States, ushered in a short-lived truce between the government and the opposition.
The government released a few opposition members from prison. And the opposition called off a symbolic "trial" in congress against Maduro and a street protest.
But the prospects look less than promising, with the opposition demanding the release of more "political prisoners" that the talks will lead to early elections, and Maduro shooting back: "There can be no ultimatums."
- 'Very ugly' situation -
There are fears a breakdown in the talks could see a return of street confrontations between anti-Maduro protesters and security forces, and possibly an escalation into outright violence.
"There are people who aren't afraid to see bloodshed. This is what worries me," Celli told the newspaper.
He said Pope Francis was playing a "strong role" in the talks.
"We are running a risk," he admitted. "We will see. May God help us."
Celli, who represented the Vatican in bringing about the talks, said he told the opposition he was afraid "there might be deaths" in a Caracas demonstration they had planned for last Thursday. "And if there are deaths, what sort of dialogue could there be?" he asked them.
The opposition eventually called off the protest.
Celli said that when he met Maduro, the leader said he would make good on a promise made to the pope to hold talks.
The envoy urged Maduro to give "signals that dialogue is the only path."
Celli said the situation in Venezuela was "very ugly.... There is no food, no medicine. It's irrefutable that the country is facing a very difficult situation."
Celli said the Vatican should not be seen as a mediator in the talks, but as a facilitator.
"Both sides understand that it is either a path of violence or a path of dialogue."