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World

Some Activists Skeptical Of Vatican-Led Venezeulan Peace Talks

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Venezuela, opposition leaders have called off - for now - protests against President Nicolas Maduro. The Vatican has sent negotiators to mediate between the two sides, but the opposition is wary. They don't trust Maduro and they say he's stalling for time. John Otis reports from Caracas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Over loudspeaker, foreign language spoken).

(APPLAUSE)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Demonstrations, like this one by university students in Caracas, have rocked Venezuela all year. People here are angry about shortages of food and medicine, rampant inflation and rising crime. Tensions reached a boiling point last month when the government called off a recall referendum that could have cut short President Nicolas Maduro's term. Fearing an outbreak of violence, the Vatican convinced both sides to negotiate. Tom Shannon, a top State Department diplomat, was in Caracas last week to support the talks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM SHANNON: From our point of view, really is last best effort to try to find a negotiated peaceful solution.

OTIS: But it's unclear whether President Maduro is taking the talk seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Foreign language spoken).

SHANNON: Just days after the talks started, Maduro inaugurated a radio program called "The Hour Of Salsa." On it, he insulted the opposition, then danced around the studio with his wife. Later, Maduro called opposition leaders terrorists and suggested that he would stay in power for a long time to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MADURO: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: "Neither through bullets, nor the ballot box" will the opposition ever take control of the presidential palace, Maduro said in a televised speech. Another concern is that an earlier round of talks between the two sides brought an end to deadly anti-government protests in 2014, but did not lead to any concessions from Maduro.

Juan Andres Mejia is a congressman for the opposition Popular Will party that is boycotting the talks.

JUAN ANDRES MEJIA: We understand that in political crisis negotiating it's necessary. But we want to know that it's for real and it's not part of a political show where the main objective for the president is to gain more time and stay in the presidency for longer.

OTIS: Then there's the issue of Venezuela's estimated 100 political prisoners, including 12 popular Will Party members. Among them is the party's leader, Leopoldo Lopez, who's spent the past two years behind bars on what human rights groups say are trumped-up charges.

MEJIA: It's hard for us to negotiate with someone that's calling us a terrorists, someone that's saying that he's going to imprison us.

OTIS: Facing heat from Mejia and other hardliners in their coalition, opposition negotiators are demanding major concessions by Friday, when they are scheduled to meet again with government envoys. These demands include releasing all political prisoners, as well as the reinstatement of the recall referendum or the moving forward of the 2018 presidential elections. Otherwise, opposition leaders say they will go back to the streets and paralyze Venezuela with more protests.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.