Venezuela opposition bets on risky truce with Maduro

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  • Nicolás Maduro
    Nicolás Maduro
    53rd President of Venezuela

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela's opposition began a tense truce Wednesday with President Nicolas Maduro, but supporters accused it of betraying them amid warnings the strategy might backfire.

With Pope Francis's blessing, Maduro and top opposition leaders have agreed to sit down to Vatican-mediated talks starting November 11, seeking an exit from a nasty political crisis and economic melt-down.

But not everyone is on board with the opposition's new strategy -- including 16 dissenting parties in its own coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), and many of its supporters.

Those rifts were plain as the MUD began 10 days of holding its fire, after cancelling plans for a march on the presidential palace and a "political trial" of Maduro in the opposition-majority legislature.

MUD secretary general Jesus Torrealba urged patience from Maduro opponents demanding an unrelenting assault on the man they accuse of driving Venezuela to the brink of collapse.

"In a matter of days, the world is going to see who delivers on their promises and who doesn't," he said.

Some opposition supporters weren't sure it was worth the wait.

"They are letting up, and they shouldn't. They need to be direct. This needs to end now," said one, 50-year-old Nancy Colina, as she waited in line at a Caracas supermarket -- a regular ritual in shortage-racked Venezuela.

- Maduro 'buying time' -

Exasperated with a three-year recession, soaring inflation, shortages, looting and violence, three in four Venezuelans are dissatisfied with Maduro, according to polls.

But the MUD, a fractious coalition united mainly by shared hatred of the leftist leader, is struggling to deliver on its promise to oust Maduro before his term ends in 2019.

After the authorities halted its efforts to call a referendum on removing him from power, alleging fraud, the opposition appeared to have momentum on its side.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest on October 26, and the threatened march on the presidential palace -- originally set for Thursday -- had vexed Maduro.

Political analysts voiced doubts about the wisdom of backing off now.

"The government is effectively buying itself two to three weeks of breathing room," said Risa Grais-Targow, a Latin America analyst at New York-based consulting firm Eurasia Group.

"With the government unwilling to cede to any of the opposition's demands, negotiations will fall apart in the coming weeks," she predicted in a note.

Maduro is just "buying time," agreed Benigno Alarcon of Venezuela's Andres Bello Catholic University.

He warned it was unlikely the opposition would win many concessions at the negotiating table.

"I find it improbable that after doing everything possible to avoid a referendum, (the government) would agree now to hold early elections," he told AFP.

US State Department Spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday the United States is committed to the success of dialogue in Venezuela.

"We are completely dedicated to see this dialogue succeed so that as a result of it real meaningful change in the daily life of Venezuelans across the country can be seen," he said.

- 'Attempt to divide' -

Even Torrealba, the MUD secretary general, acknowledged the risk of sitting down to talks with the enemy.

After Maduro attacked one MUD member, the hardline opposition party Popular Will, as a "terrorist group" for refusing to join the talks, Torrealba accused the president of seeking to divide his enemies to undermine the negotiations.

"With his attack on Popular Will and his attempt to divide Venezuela's democrats, Maduro is stomping on the negotiations and mocking Pope Francis," Torrealba said.

Popular Will, one of the most hardline anti-Maduro parties, is leading a group of 16 MUD members boycotting talks with the government. Its founder, Leopoldo Lopez, is serving a 14-year prison sentence on charges of inciting unrest at anti-government protests that left 43 people dead in 2014.

Torrealba vowed the opposition would stick together.

"If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us," he said.

Oil giant Venezuela has gone into economic tailspin as crude prices have plunged since mid-2014.

Maduro blames the crisis on a capitalist conspiracy. His opponents say it is the failure of 17 years of socialist rule under the mustachioed president and his mentor, late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez.

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