Leaders of Venezuela's opposition coalition publicly argued on Monday as its major factions turned against a surprise plan to hold talks with the unpopular government of President Nicolas Maduro.
Opposition leaders were caught off guard by the announcement of the talks earlier in the day by coalition head Jesus Torrealba, splintering the disparate group just as it was preparing for a Wednesday street protest.
"No dialogue has begun in Venezuela," said two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, adding he had found out about the talks on television. "These devils want to use the good faith of Pope Francis to buy more time."
The opposition Democratic Unity coalition's major parties mostly said they would not be engaging in the talks, which are to be mediated by the Vatican, regional bloc the Union of South American Nations, and three former international leaders on the Caribbean island of Margarita on Sunday.
The opposition was pushing to remove Maduro in a referendum this year as Venezuela undergoes a major economic crisis that has food running short and inflation destroying incomes. But the government nixed the signature drive last week, and a furious opposition vowed protests and a trial of the president for violating democracy.
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Maduro himself was in Rome meeting with Pope Francis, after a tour of oil-producing nations.
"At last we are installing a dialogue between the opposition and the legitimate government," Maduro said, after the Pope urged him to alleviate Venezuelans' suffering.
Past conversations between the bitterly polarized opponents have led to little progress. The opposition says Maduro is an inept autocrat who must leave office before the crisis worsens. The former bus driver and union leader vows not to be pushed out by what he calls a power-hungry elite seeking a coup.
Torrealba was cautious. "Dialogue cannot mean a government strategy to win time," he said after meeting a Vatican envoy in Caracas. "It's a space to fight for a better country for all."'WE WANT FREEDOM!'
The opposition is calling for nationwide protests for Wednesday as Venezuela's third year of recession has left many skipping meals because of widespread food shortages and spiraling prices.
Capriles said the protests would go ahead and would continue until the government "respects the constitution."
No official agenda of the talks was announced, but the opposition is bound to bring up complaints about the quashing of its referendum bid to remove Maduro and the sidelining of the National Assembly, while the government will likely detail charges its foes are guilty of fraud, violence and coup plans.
Among the mediators will be former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, former Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez and former Panamanian President Martin Torrijos.
During a protest on Monday, student leaders said 27 demonstrators were injured in clashes with security forces in the volatile border city of San Cristobal near Colombia.
"We want freedom!" chanted the several hundred protesters, who barricaded roads with burning rubble.
A hotbed of anti-Maduro sentiment, San Cristobal was the site of the worst violence during protests two years ago that led to 43 deaths around the nation.
Students also held scattered protests in other places, including the capital, Caracas, but most were holding fire for Wednesday's rallies, dubbed "The Takeover of Venezuela."
Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea and Corina Pons in Caracas, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne, Alexandra Ulmer and Girish Gupta; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney.