The United Nations' top human rights official met Friday in Caracas with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is locked in a prolonged struggle with President Nicolás Maduro for control of the crisis-wracked country.
Emerging from the meeting, Guaidó said he spoke with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet about the need to expel Maduro from power and end Venezuela's "suffering."
"May this visit serve to bring solutions to the catastrophe that this country is experiencing," said Guaidó, speaking on the steps of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. "This visit should serve to reinvigorate the fight in Venezuela."
Maduro, who will meet with Bachelet later in the afternoon, maintains that his rival's efforts have been part of a U.S.-backed coup intended to remove him from office and exploit the nation's vast oil.
Bachelet's first trip to the South American country as chief of the U.N. watchdog comes amid heightened international pressure on Maduro for allegedly silencing opponents with jail, torture and excessive violence. A once-wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is now experiencing a severe political and economic crisis that has driven a staggering 4 million people to flee. The government struggles daily to keep the lights on and provide reliable drinking water.
In his closed-door conversation with Bachelet, Guaidó said he emphasized that Maduro's government is still holding two opposition lawmakers in jail in addition to nearly 700 activists considered to be political prisoners.
Guaidó said the high commissioner also appeared deeply concerned about human rights abuses, noting that she spent several hours on her visit with victims of rights violations and their relatives.
Earlier this year, Bachelet issued a tough statement criticizing Maduro's government for harsh crackdowns on dissenters and reports of extrajudicial killings of poor, unarmed residents at the hands of security forces.
"I am also deeply concerned about the shrinking of the democratic space, especially the continued criminalization of peaceful protest and dissent," she said in the March statement.
On Friday, Bachelet will complete her three-day visit by speaking with Maduro, socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, the Supreme Court head and attorney general.
Some have feared she will get a highly curated, unrealistic view of a crisis, while others have seen the trip as something of a minor triumph for rights activists.
Her predecessor, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, was repeatedly denied access to the country for criticizing what he said was the government's refusal to recognize a humanitarian crisis.
In contrast, Maduro appears to be rolling out the red carpet for Bachelet, who survived jail and exile during Chile's military dictatorship.
On the eve of her arrival, the government freed 28 opposition activists considered political prisoners, including a substitute lawmaker and 18 people detained during recent anti-government protests. Previously, Maduro began allowing the Red Cross to deliver humanitarian aid.
Appearing on state TV shortly before Bachelet's Wednesday arrival, Maduro said he was ready to hear out any of her proposals that aim to improve conditions in Venezuela.
"We greatly anticipate her visit," Maduro said. "It will be good for Venezuela's system of human rights."
Guaidó has failed to seize power five months after launching a campaign to oust Maduro. But he has managed to win the recognition of more than 50 nations and galvanize international opinion against Maduro, who is now vying to remain in control of the South American country.
In recent weeks, Norway has hosted two rounds of talks between representatives of Maduro and Guaidó, although the mediation effort has stalled recently over the opposition leader's insistence the government agree to early presidential elections.
Opposition leaders held protests Friday outside the U.N. headquarters in Caracas to draw attention to the government's human rights record. Some carried banners asking Bachelet for medical help, while others held empty baby strollers over their heads to highlight the state of hospitals that fail to provide care to children.
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