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Bolivarian National Guardsmen detain anti-government demonstrators during clashes at a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 14, 2014. / Fernando Llano, AP

CARACAS, Venezuela - Foreign ministers from three South American countries will meet with Venezuela's opposition group Sunday in a bid to revive stalled talks with the government and end more than three months of protests that have left at least 41 dead.

A month after dialogue began with embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) - a coalition group of opposition parties - suspended talks last week after government officials denied statements from Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, MUD secretary general, that the two sides were nearing an agreement on releasing prisoners.

Aveledo also faulted the government for creating a "truth commission" under National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a Maduro partisan, to investigate the demonstrations, which erupted in early February as a protest against soaring crime.

Foreign ministers from Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, as well as an envoy from the Vatican, have been mediating the meetings, which have yet to produce any concrete accords.

This weekend's meetings are crucial in forecasting whether the two sides will continue dialogue, says David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

"I am sure that Maduro and the government would like for talks to continue without having to make any concessions,'' he says. "MUD's conversations with the ministers are aimed at pressuring the government to give some ground."

This talks are taking place against an uptick in violence, with fresh clashes in Caracas and other major cities. The government arrested more than 250 university students last week when they took over "tent cities" throughout Caracas. That action led to fresh protests in middle-class neighborhoods in Caracas, with 80 being arrested on Wednesday alone. Since protests began, more than 3,000 have been arrested, including members of the country's security forces.

Maduro claims the students, who aren't represented in the talks, are being financed and encouraged by former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and the U.S.

Meanwhile, Venezuela's renewed unrest is starting to alarm its neighbors. Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who has steadfastly backed Maduro since protests began, said in an interview Wednesday with CNN en Espanol that the country was in danger of becoming ungovernable because of heightened tensions.

"No one is going to be able to govern in that climate of confrontation that Venezuela has,'' Mujica said.

While the two sides bicker, Venezuela's economic crisis deepens. The country, which has the world's largest oil reserves but has struggled to develop them, faces widespread shortages of basic foodstuffs, medicines and spare parts.

Many companies have been forced to suspend operations because of a lack of raw materials and claim the government isn't making enough dollars available to them to import goods from abroad.

Venezuela imports about 70% of the goods it consumes, and dollars are strictly allocated by the government. Venezuelan companies owe overseas providers about $14 billion and many have seen their credit lines frozen.

Foreign companies are also closing up shop. Alitalia, Italy's flagship carrier, said Thursday it would suspend flights to Venezuela as of June 2 because of an ongoing dispute over remittances. Alitalia is the second major international carrier to suspend operations in Venezuela, following Air Canada.

The airlines say they are owed $3.8 billion by the government from their sale of tickets in local currency and that the government hasn't made dollars available to them at the previously agreed upon exchange rate.

Meanwhile, Maduro increased the minimum wage by 30% on May 1, hard on the heels of a 10% increase in January.

However, even his backers argue that the increase isn't enough given the country's inflation rate, which is nearly 60%. In addition, the government is now raising controlled prices of various foodstuffs.

Hikes in the prices of rice, sugar and poultry were all significantly above the 30% wage increase meted out to workers.

"How can we survive?'' says Tamara Hernandez, a 36-year-old housewife in the central industrial city of La Victoria. "As soon as they raise wages, they increase the food prices. When will we ever catch up?"



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Venezuela, opposition revive talks amid unrest

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