By Deisy Buitrago and Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, Dec 18 (Reuters) - 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, whom he has repeatedly lampooned as a “vampire,” and Valencia Mayor Miguel Cocchiola, whom 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.
While Maduro spoke of a fresh start between Venezuela’s bitterly opposed political factions and listened attentively to his opponents, cynics will remember how his mentor, Chavez, skillfully interspersed rapprochements and attacks to outwit his foes.
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 succeed 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.
The president’s opponents sat stone-faced through Maduro’s opening speech at the meeting, which was broadcast live on local TV, but then did not hold back when allowed to give ripostes.
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 organizations funded by the 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.
He called on Maduro to focus on grassroots concerns such as annual inflation of 54 percent, 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 remarks and then a stream of other opposition leaders’ often highly critical speeches at the meeting. For several hours, the mayors bombarded Maduro with complaints on a plethora of issues from street-lights and water shortages to delayed disbursements of funds.
“I think Maduro is trying to lower the tension a bit,” local pollster Luis Vicente Leon told Reuters.
“We should always applaud any attempt at reconciliation and opening ... However, it’s early to judge if this is serious and real or just strategy ... Chavez used this tactic often in the past and then simply carried on, but with the perception that he had made an effort at reconciliation.”
Some of the opposition mayors warmly praised Maduro for starting a dialogue, one walking up and giving him a bear hug.
“Dialogue is not weakness, it doesn’t mean negating our principles or beliefs, it’s a symptom of political maturity, it strengthens democracy,” Tweeted opposition governor Henri Falcon from the meeting.
While the government heads into 2014 with major economic headaches, Venezuela’s opposition faces a period of soul-searching and a possible leadership challenge to Capriles.
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.
The move proved a hit with voters, but Wall Street analysts have dismissed it as short-term populism that could worsen the country’s economic problems in 2014.