CARACAS (Reuters) - As violent protests in Venezuela alienate moderates in the opposition and show no signs of toppling President Nicolas Maduro, the socialist leader’s call for talks is deepening divisions between his rivals.
The country’s worst civil unrest in a decade has killed at least 20 people, including supporters of both sides and members of the security forces, since early last month.
Day after day, thousands of opposition supporters march peacefully in cities around the nation, demanding political change and an end to high inflation, shortages of basic foods in stores, and one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Then every night, hooded opposition militants emerge around a square in eastern Caracas brandishing rocks and Molotov cocktails, clashing with riot police and turning one of the capital’s most affluent neighborhoods into a battlefield.
The violence is fueling tensions inside the opposition, with moderates scared it could spin further out of control and tarnish the cause of peaceful political change in the future.
Maduro appears to have weathered the worst of the demonstrations on the streets for now and is repeatedly offering talks, creating a new dilemma for opposition leaders.
So far, they have put tough conditions on any discussions, saying they refuse to be part of a “photo opportunity” and that they fear the government has no intention of addressing issues such as corruption, impunity and political prisoners.
The Democratic Unity opposition coalition said on Friday it would only sit down for dialogue with Maduro if the meeting were mediated by someone “of good faith” - and broadcast live.
“We’re sick of violence. Everyone is being attacked,” it said in a statement. “We’re showing our hand to the public ... (We want) true dialogue, a clear agenda, and equal conditions.”
But with pleas for talks coming from as far afield as the White House, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Pope Francis, the refusal to attend any discussions to date has drawn criticism, including from within the coalition’s ranks.
Opposition lawmaker Hiram Gaviria quit his party Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Time) and the coalition on Friday over its ban on attending talks at the Miraflores presidential palace.
Gaviria blamed the unrest on the government, which he said had imposed a broken social and economic model and used 15 years of “hate speech” to undermine its opponents.
But he said he would meet anyone, anywhere, to try to avoid more violence, even if dialogue stood little chance of success.
“How many more deaths must there be before we talk and find understanding?” asked the legislator from central Aragua state. “There has to be dialogue.”
The opposition was deeply divided for years until it showed remarkable cohesion ahead of the 2012 presidential election and again last year when a new vote was called to succeed socialist leader Hugo Chavez after his death from cancer.
The current protests, however, have reopened old rifts between those who advocate street action to force the president from power, and others with a slow-boil strategy of building support in the cities and states they govern while letting the dysfunctional economy weaken the government.
Maduro’s critics, some of whom have vowed to stay in the streets until he resigns, are demanding the release of political prisoners, justice for victims of what they call repression, and the disbandment of armed pro-government militant groups that are accused of attacking opposition protesters.
Another opposition lawmaker, Ismael Garcia, said the majority of Democratic Unity were in favor of serious talks.
“Nobody has rejected dialogue, but there have to be very clear rules to the game, and we must work together,” he said.
But it is not clear how opposition leaders want to handle the demonstrations. Though Maduro’s opponents condemn the violence by a small but vocal minority, they continue to support street mobilizations that often lead to such clashes.
Plaza Altamira, site of the nightly battles with riot police, once enjoyed its reputation as one of the capital’s nicest spaces. Now the street corners are piled with burnt trash and charred wires, broken bricks and shattered glass.
The barricading of roads by demonstrators has led to fist-fights, fatal shootings, more teargas, and incensed cries of “repression” from more shrill voices in the opposition.
While they understand the frustration, others disagree.
“Rejecting the barricades doesn’t mean one supports the government,” said local political analyst Luis Vicente Leon.
Maduro appears to have survived the short-term challenge to his rule. Coinciding with the emotional anniversary of Chavez’s death, the protests have even given him a chance to unite the ruling Socialist Party against a common threat.
At an event to mark International Women’s Day on Saturday, Maduro consoled the sobbing wife of a pro-government actor who described how they were screamed at in a Caracas restaurant by dozens of opposition supporters who walked in banging pots and pans and yelling that her husband was a murderer.
Maduro offered again to sit down with the opposition.
“If you want, we’ll do a closed-door session first and tell each other everything we need to say, and then we’ll speak to the country together,” he said in a nationally televised speech.
He was worried, he said, that the opposition’s leadership was crumbling and creating an unpredictable power vacuum.
“I don’t say this as a joke ... it’s very dangerous. Anyone could take over who has violent plans, and that would be worse.”
In a sign of increasing confidence, an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that many in the opposition had hoped would prove to be a disaster for Maduro, pleased the president so much that state TV has re-run it in its entirety two nights running.
The answer which most outraged his foes in the opposition: when Amanpour asked Maduro what kept him awake at night, and he replied that he slept “peacefully, like a child.”
“It was a very good interview, forgive my immodesty,” he told Saturday’s rally. “But any of you, if you sat with Amanpour, would answer as well or better than me, because it’s the truth of the people, the true story of Venezuela.”
Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Kieran Murray and Eric Walsh