Venezuela, opposition agree to hold talks


Caracas (AFP)

Venezuela's government and opposition leaders will meet Sunday in a bid to open a dialogue about the country's deepening political crisis, both sides announced.

An agreement to hold talks was reached Saturday at a regional summit in Cartagena, Colombia. A representative from the Vatican will also take part, officials said.

"A process of dialogue is being established with opposition groups," Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said in a speech during the Ibero-American Summit in Cartagena on Saturday.

Opposition leader Jesus Torrealba of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition group said late Saturday that although the dissident coalition agreed to take part in the talks, it did so with feelings of "skepticism and distrust.

The talks were scheduled amid heightened political turmoil in Venezuela, where opposition leaders have vowed to try to hold a legislative trial to remove President Nicolas Maduro from power.

Maduro for his part has threatened to jail his political enemies, while street riots rage and food shortages persist.

Rodriguez said the meeting aims to end "anti-constitutional, anti-democratic" actions by Venezuela's dissidents.

The MUD in a statement also reiterated its demands that the government respect the constitutional right to a referendum on removing Maduro from office and that it free imprisoned activists.

Dissident leaders on Friday held a partially-observed strike, and recent days have seen fierce clashes involving riot police and pro- and anti-government protesters around Venezuela.

Protests last week drew hundreds of thousands, and the opposition threatened another protest this week to be held at the presidential palace.

Venezuela is suffering a deep economic crisis despite boasting the world's largest oil reserves, in large part because of falling crude prices.

Maduro last week tried to mollify struggling workers by offering a 40 percent increase in the minimum wage, equivalent to about $140 (127 euros) a month.

But economic analysts said the pay raise would do little good in a country where the International Monetary Fund estimates inflation this year will hit 475 percent.

It was not immediately clear where Sunday's talks would take place.

Opposition leaders have rejected the proposed location of Isla Margarita, a Venezuelan island in the Caribbean Sea, and insists they be held in Caracas.