Venezuela opposition withdraws from crisis talks

Alex VASQUEZ
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Jesus Torrealba -- the leader of Venezuela's opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD)-- speaks to reporters in Caracas, on December 2, 2016

Jesus Torrealba -- the leader of Venezuela's opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD)-- speaks to reporters in Caracas, on December 2, 2016 (AFP Photo/Federico Parra)

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela's opposition Tuesday withdrew from the latest round of crisis negotiations with authorities, insisting the government first release prisoners and allow a vote on the volatile country's political future.

It was the latest clash in a tense standoff between the South American country's socialist government and the center right-dominated opposition.

"We are staying in the dialogue system but we are not going to take part in today's meeting," said Jesus Torrealba, leader of the opposition MUD coalition.

His side insists the government release jailed opposition leaders and agree to hold a vote on whether Socialist President Nicolas Maduro should stay in office.

Maduro has refused both demands, despite insisting he is open to dialogue.

The center-right opposition blames Maduro's management for a deep economic crisis.

Maduro says the crisis is a US-backed capitalist conspiracy.

His number two Diosdado Cabello had insisted on Monday: "We will not withdraw from the talks."

A recession driven by plunging prices for Venezuela's crucial crude oil exports has led to shortages of food and medicine.

Citizens face long queues to buy basic supplies and inflation has soared. Deadly riots and looting have broken out over recent months.

- Political prisoners -

The dialogue aims to calm tensions as the center-right opposition demands a vote on removing Maduro.

The MUD claimed Maduro's side had agreed at the last round of talks to meet some of its demands.

"The government is not only failing to fulfill its promises, it is denying all the agreements," Torrealba said on the radio.

Maduro insists the issue of prisoners and a vote were never on the table.

A group of 14 jailed opposition leaders launched a hunger strike on Monday to demand the government release political prisoners and allow a vote to settle the crisis.

Analysts have warned there is a risk of unrest in Venezuela. Anti-government protests in 2014 led to clashes that left 43 people dead.

Maduro has the public backing of the military high command and of most state institutions.

The broad opposition coalition meanwhile has been divided over whether to take part in the talks.

Political scientist Francine Jacome said the dialogue was "unviable" in the current circumstances.

"I do not see the government being willing to give ground on the opposition's essential demands because it has everything to lose," he told AFP.

Torrealba said his side would only meet with Vatican and regional Latin American mediators on Tuesday.

It is also demanding that Maduro let in foreign humanitarian aid to the country and lift a court injunction against the opposition-controlled congress.

MUD sources told AFP they did not rule out that the government might make "proposals" via the mediators on Tuesday to unblock the talks.