By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's government formally invited Vatican No. 2 Cardinal Pietro Parolin on Wednesday to mediate talks with the opposition in hopes of stemming violence that has killed dozens in the nation's worst unrest in a decade.
In a letter, President Nicolas Maduro's government asked that Parolin, a former envoy to Venezuela who is now the Vatican's Secretary of State, be named a "good faith witness" to a dialogue finally agreed after two months of protests.
A Vatican spokesman confirmed the Roman Catholic Church's willingness to mediate, but gave no more details.
Venezuela's opposition coalition had indicated that current Vatican envoy, Aldo Giordano, would be attending the first formal talks, which are to start on Thursday in Caracas.
Both Vatican officials are Italian.
Parolin, who represented the Vatican in Venezuela from 2009-2013, is a frugal, publicity-shy career diplomat who, according to those who know him, is the antithesis of his most recent predecessors in the job.
The government and Democratic Unity coalition held a first preliminary sit-down on Tuesday, agreeing to start a formal dialogue over problems ranging from crime and economic problems to the detention of dozens of protesters.
Hardline demonstrators, however, are not happy about the talks, saying there should be no dialogue while protest leader Leopoldo Lopez and others remain in prison.
"We don't believe in a 'dialogue' which the regime is planning to be a political show ... Our organization will not endorse any dialogue with the regime while repression, imprisonment and persecution of our people continues," said Lopez's party Popular Will.
Protesters took to the streets in early February, with some openly wanting to provoke a "Venezuelan Spring" that would force Maduro out of power. Since then, there have been daily clashes as security forces and pro-government militants have faced off with hooded opposition demonstrators blocking streets.
With the armed forces apparently still behind him, and the opposition failing to bring out the millions they had hoped for, Maduro's position does not appear to be under threat.
He does, however, face a considerable challenge to remedy some roots of the crisis, including the highest inflation in the Americas, shortages of basic products, a beleaguered private sector, and violent crime rates that are among the world's worst.
Hundreds of people have been injured and arrested since the protests started. The dead, who number 39 according to the government, include Maduro supporters, opponents, and members of the security force.
Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver, has made preserving predecessor Hugo Chavez's socialist legacy the guiding principle of his government. But opponents say he is wrecking Venezuela by sticking to a failed and authoritarian model.
South American regional bloc Unasur is brokering the talks.
(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome; editing by Gunna Dickson)