CARACAS Dec 18 Venezuelan President Nicolas
Maduro held a rare meeting with opponents on Wednesday,
challenging them to collect signatures to oust him in 2016 if
they wanted but to work with him in the meantime.
Maduro invited opposition mayors and governors to Miraflores
presidential palace in an attempt to draw a line after four
bitterly-fought elections in Venezuela in little over a year.
"I've greeted you with sincere affection. I respect all your
political positions," said the 51-year-old former union
activist, urging them to join government anti-poverty projects
in the OPEC nation of 29 million people.
"In the spirit of Christmas, we can turn over a new page,"
he added. "Our differences will remain, but I urge you to work."
Before the meeting, Maduro shook hands with high-profile
opponents such as Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who he has
repeatedly lampooned as a "vampire," and Valencia Mayor Miguel
Cocchiola, who he has called a "thief" and "criminal."
The president also offered them gifts of writings by Hugo
Chavez, who died of cancer in March, and played a recording of
the late president singing Venezuela's national anthem.
And Maduro reminded his opponents of their constitutional
right to seek a recall referendum half-way through his term
should they collect the nearly 4 million signatures needed.
"In 2016, you have the opportunity. If you want to get me
out of the presidency, collect the signatures then," he said.
Maduro won an April presidential vote to replace Chavez by
just 1.5 percentage points. But his "Chavista" candidates took a
bigger-than-expected 10 percentage points more votes than
opposition rivals in local elections earlier this month.
That has given Maduro some political breathing space and may
enable him to take some potentially unpopular measures such as a
devaluation to manage Venezuela's grave economic problems.
His opponents sat stone-faced through Maduro's opening
speech at the meeting, which was broadcast live on local TV.
The opposition's main leader, Miranda state Governor
Henrique Capriles, chose not to attend, saying he did not oppose
dialogue but felt the government was imposing conditions.
He complained about the government's undermining of local
authorities in opposition hands by creating parallel bodies. In
various opposition-controlled areas, the government has named
alternative "protectors" and bodies which receive state
Caracas Mayor Ledezma, for example, saw his losing rival
Ernesto Villegas immediately given a post for the "revolutionary
transformation" of the capital after the Dec. 8 local vote.
Ledezma called on Maduro to focus on grassroots concerns
such as inflation of 54 percent annually, scarcities of products
from flour to milk, and service failures.
"We came here to talk about the most urgent needs of
Venezuelans," Ledezma told Maduro at the meeting, also urging
him to consider an amnesty for jailed opponents.
In an unusual move, state TV broadcast Ledezma's and various
other opposition leaders' highly critical speeches at the
While Maduro spoke of a fresh start between Venezuela's
bitterly-opposed political factions and listened attentively to
his opponents, cynics will remember that his mentor Chavez
skillfully interspersed rapprochements and attacks to outwit his
Chavez ruled Venezuela for 14 years, and his chosen
successor Maduro has made preserving that legacy the central
platform of his rule.
The opposition had appeared to be heading for a better
result at the Dec. 8 polls until Maduro launched an "economic
offensive" last month, sending soldiers and inspectors into
shops to force retailers to cut prices.
Though the move proved a hit with voters, Wall Street
analysts have dismissed the measures as short-term populism
that could worsen the country's economic problems.