CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, VENEZUELA —
Venezuela's opposition exhorted President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday to set an election and start releasing jailed activists within days, while students opposed to Vatican-led talks protested in the streets.
The opposition coalition drew hundreds of thousands into the streets when authorities quashed its drive for a referendum against Maduro last month in the country of 30 million people.
But it suspended street actions out of respect for talks with the government that began at the weekend mediated by a Papal envoy.
However, with one major party dissenting and many supporters fearful Maduro is playing for time, opposition leaders said they would wait until Nov. 11 before possibly quitting talks and returning to street tactics if demands were ignored.
Carlos Ocariz, an opposition mayor speaking on behalf of the coalition, reiterated their first demand was the revival of the referendum or a moving forward of presidential elections to the first quarter of 2017.
The next presidential vote is currently set for late 2018.
"Our second goal is the freedom of all political prisoners in Venezuela," Ocariz said, referring to what the opposition estimate are around 100 Maduro critics unfairly imprisoned.
The coalition also wants to overturn Supreme Court rulings that have annulled the opposition-led National Assembly and to name a new board to the national election council, which it accuses of favoring Maduro.
The 53-year-old socialist leader won election to replace his late mentor Hugo Chavez in 2013, but has seen his popularity plummet to just over 20 percent amid an unprecedented economic crisis in the OPEC member.
There is no indication Maduro will agree to any of the coalition's demands, and in a speech on Thursday he criticized their timetable and urged patience.
"They are creating false expectations," he said. "Nobody should leave the table, nor set an ultimatum."
Arguing that talks can never work with a government they consider a dictatorship, hundreds of students marched in Caracas and elsewhere.
"There can't be dialogue when you have political prisoners, when they deny us an election and there is hunger," said Fernando Marquez, 23, among about 150 students who faced off with police in the restive western city of San Cristobal.
Security forces fired tear gas to stop them advancing.
During 17 years of socialist rule, the government and opposition have repeatedly held talks when tensions on the street have boiled over. But all of them have quickly degenerated back into the acrimonious insults that characterize modern-day Venezuelan politics.