Pope Francis met privately with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at the Vatican Monday and urged him to spark a meaningful dialogue with opposition leaders.
Maduro, who just ended a trip to the Middle East, is arriving back in Venezuela just days after his government blocked an opposition effort to remove him from office through a recall referendum.
Maduro’s political opponents have accused him of staging a “coup d’etat” by stopping the effort to hold a vote to remove him. There have also been calls for demonstrations to protest the decision.
In a statement, the Vatican said Pope Francis asked Maduro to engage the opposition in a “sincere and constructive dialogue” that will benefit all of the people suffering in Venezuela. Francis urged Maduro to promote a social cohesion to help Venezuela recover from its recent economic crisis.
Speaking in Caracas, Papal envoy Emil Paul Tscherrig said the two sides hoped to begin talks on October 30 on the Venezuelan island of Margarita.
A spokesman for the opposition MUD coalition later denied that the two sides agreed to the terms of the Margarita meeting, though he was encouraged by the involvement of the Vatican in the talks.
"What dialogue? No dialogue has been started in Venezuela," Henrique Capriles, a senior MUD member, said in an online statement.
On Saturday, several thousand women marched on the streets of Caracas to protest the suspension of the referendum effort. Analysts have said violent unrest is more likely in Venezuela after the country’s economy crashed and people began looting due to shortages of food and basic health products.
Polls show around 75 percent of Venezuelans want to see Maduro removed from power and blame him for the collapse in the country’s standard of living. Maduro has called the economic collapse a capitalist conspiracy.