Venezuela's unpopular socialist leader Nicolas Maduro shook hands with opposition leaders at Vatican-convened talks on Sunday, but his wary foes threatened to boycott further meetings if some demands were not quickly met.
The irate opposition Democratic Unity coalition has escalated protests against Maduro after authorities scuttled a recall referendum that polls show he would have lost, triggering a presidential election.
Their top demand is to revive the plebiscite
Opponents say 17 years of socialism have wrecked the OPEC nation's economy and crushed democracy, while the government says a U.S.-backed elite is seeking a violent coup.
Maduro, 53, who won election to succeed Hugo Chavez in 2013, arrived mid-evening for the meeting at a Caracas museum.
He cordially greeted the five opposition leaders, including coalition secretary-general Jesus Torrealba and opposition governor Henri Falcon.Also attending were a Vatican envoy
, representatives of the Unasur regional bloc, and three former heads of state or government from Spain, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
"The Pope is following the situation of this country very closely
and hopes this process can continue peacefully," said papal envoy Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli.
Venezuela's opposition is also demanding freedom for political prisoners, humanitarian aid amid an unprecedented economic downturn, and respect for the opposition-led National Assembly.
The opposition delegation would "demand an end to the repression and persecution of democrats and the people, and will walk away from the dialogue if the demands are not resolved in the short term," the coalition said in a statement.
It termed the talks an "exploratory meeting" only.