CARACAS, Venezuela -- The first face-to-face meeting between Venezuela’s government and the political opposition since violent protests erupted in February are scheduled to start late Thursday, with the proceedings mediated by three Latin American foreign ministers and broadcast nationwide.
Though participants for either side have not been named, President Nicolas Maduro is expected to attend for the government and face three members of the Democratic Unity coalition of opposition parties: Ramon Guillermo Avelado, Henri Falcon and Omar Barboza.
Some high drama could be provided by the appearance of Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state who narrowly lost the presidential election last year to Maduro. Capriles has said the election was “stolen” from him and that he considers Maduro an illegitimate president.
“This sounds hard and sad but either we have dialogue or we all die. That’s the truth,” Falcon, the governor of Lara state, said Wednesday.
Some opposition leaders, including expelled National Assembly member Maria Corina Machado, oppose the talks. They argue that the government should first release political prisoners and disarm vigilantes that they say have terrorized protesters over the last two months.
At least 40 people have been killed in clashes between demonstrators on one side and government security forces and vigilantes on the other, with hundreds more injured and detained. The protests started among students in western Tachira state over the lack of security on a university campus and quickly spread to other cities.
Since the demonstrations began, three opposition leaders -- former Caracas borough Mayor Leopoldo Lopez and two serving mayors -- have been arrested for allegedly inciting violence. The protests have focused on rising violent crime, scarcities of basic foodstuffs and a faltering economy.
In a Twitter message to followers, Lopez, who has been imprisoned in a military jail since Feb. 18, said he supported Thursday’s meeting.
The talks, which Maduro has described as a “debate” and not a negotiation, will take place in the presidential palace Miraflores. On Wednesday, Maduro invited the Vatican’s secretary of state Cardinal Piero Parolin, who is a former papal nuncio to Venezuela, to participate as a “good-faith witness.”
“I would be a traitor if I tried to negotiate the revolution, because that’s not in my power,” Maduro said Tuesday in his weekly program over state-run TV. ‘’Dialogue has to be the way to construct our nation. We won’t convert them into socialists and they won’t turn us into capitalists. “
A preparatory meeting was held Tuesday in the Foreign Ministry building and included the three foreign ministers who will mediate the Thursday encounter: Colombia’s Maria Angela Holguin, Brazil’s Luiz Alberto Figueiredo and Ecuador’s Ricardo Patino.
In addition to the release of prisoners and the disarming of vigilantes, the Democratic Unity coalition is expected to demand the government takes steps to ensure more “pluralism” in the government and perhaps form an independent “truth commission.”
Maduro is expected to propose a new economic plan to address scarcities and weak job growth.
Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.