Venezuela’s political opposition rejected calls from Pope Francis for another round of dialogue with dictator Nicolás Maduro and decried the pope’s claim that the opposition was currently “divided.” The Vatican mediated talks between the two sides throughout 2016 which collapsed as the government refused to release political prisoners or entertain presidential elections.
“It’s curious… the opposition itself is divided, no?” the pope asked during remarks this weekend. “On the other hand, it seems like the conflicts get increasingly worse, but something is in flux, I was informed of this… it is very up in the air still.” During remarks on Sunday, Pope Francis added: “I make an impassioned plea to the government and all those within Venezuelan society to avoid any other forms of violence, to respect human rights, and to seek a negotiated solution.”
The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), a coalition of socialist parties and supporters who oppose socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro, issued a letter to Pope Francis in response to his statements. “Venezuelans feel defrauded by a dialogue without results, in which the government has exhibited more propagandistic than substantial intentions, devaluing this valuable instrument and intending, without success, to demoralize public opinion and divide the opposition,” the statement read.
“We Venezuelans are today more united than ever regarding the demand for political change in the country. And the factions within the MUD are, too, in their purpose as well as their action,” the statement concluded.
Henrique Capriles Radonski, the governor of Miranda state and a two-time opposition presidential candidate, rejected the pope’s claim that the opposition is “divided.” “That is not true,” he said in a statement. “He speaks as if some want to engage in dialogue and others do not. Venezuelans all want dialogue, but we are not willing to engage in a ‘Zapatero’ dialogue,” he added, referring to former Spanish president and mediator José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.
During the last round of talks, in which Zapatero was involved as an ally of the government, the two sides made no progress in discussing the collapsing economy, police brutality against protesters, severe food and medicine shortages, and liberating political prisoners. Instead, the Maduro government acted to delegitimize the National Assembly, which turned opposition-majority in late 2015, and veto its bills meant to correct Maduro’s socialist policies. The talks collapsed towards the end of 2016 with the opposition arguing that Maduro had entered the dialogue disingenuously, Capriles accusing Maduro of “making a mockery of even the pope.”
Now, Maduro is calling for dialogue again. “I am ready to talk, to dialogue anywhere and however with you,” Maduro said to the opposition on his Sunday night television program In Contact with Maduro. “I have been calling for dialogue for a year, I sat them at the table, they got up and ran away,” he claimed.
He demanded that the National Assembly’s Majority Leader Julio Borges, whom he referred to as “Eyebrows,” re-engage in talks with the government. “Now you have the opportunity, Eyebrows, I am handing it to you… don’t complain later.”
Borges has been an active opposition leader for years before becoming majority leader in the National Assembly. During a protest in 2016, pro-government gangs beat Borges with metal sticks during a protest, breaking his nose.
Maduro also announced this weekend that he expects local elections to take place in the near future. “I am looking forward to the convening of an electoral process because I trust the people,” he said on his television program. He did not indicate that presidential or legislative elections would also take place, instead boasting that his government had fully incapacitated the National Assembly, the federal legislature.
“Don’t worry about the National Assembly because there isn’t any,” he said. “The people will develop its constitutional power and rescue the National Assembly so that it serves the happiness of the people and national sovereignty.”
Government repression of protests in Venezuela has killed 29 people, most student protesters, in the past month, following the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court’s attempt to nullify the National Assembly and establish itself as the nation’s federal legislative body.