By Andrew Cawthorne and Daniel Kai
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro was expected to sit down on Sunday with members of the opposition and foreign mediators, a gesture his foes suspect is a time-wasting tactic to ease pressure on the unpopular socialist leader.
The opposition Democratic Unity coalition has stepped up protests since authorities scuttled its push for a referendum this year on Maduro's rule, which polls showed he would have lost, triggering a presidential election.
Critics say 17 years of socialist rule have wrecked the OPEC nation's economy and crushed democracy, while the government says a U.S.-backed elite is seeking a coup.
Maduro has said he will personally attend a meeting, expected to take place later on Sunday in Caracas, while coalition secretary-general Jesus Torrealba said he would represent its nearly 30 different political organizations.
Also due to attend were a Vatican envoy, representatives of the Unasur regional bloc, and three former heads of state from Spain, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
Torrealba, in a blog, said top of the opposition's agenda would be resuscitating the plebiscite, freeing political prisoners, helping victims of Venezuela's "humanitarian crisis", and demanding respect for the opposition-led legislature.
"There could be important conclusions that enable a scaling-down of the conflict, a return to the electoral route, and a distancing of the storm-clouds of violence," he said.
"There's no denying: there is skepticism and mistrust."
WARY OPPOSITION LEADERS
Various opposition leaders have distanced themselves from the talks, saying Maduro has become a dictator who is only promoting dialogue to entrench himself.
And with rumors swirling on Sunday and reporters checking out local hotels, there was no sign of a meeting by mid-afternoon. Previous sit-downs between the two sides in recent years eased some tensions but did little for rapprochement.
Opposition sources said coalition leaders were first meeting among themselves on Sunday to decide whether to attend and, if so, what their position should be. If a meeting takes place, they said, it would be in the evening.
"Everyone knows that President Nicolas Maduro and his regime normally use dialogue as a mechanism to evade constitutional responsibilities and buy time," 15 coalition parties said in a letter urging Torrealba to use a meeting only to negotiate Maduro's exit this year.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said Maduro, 53, had stayed away from Saturday's Ibero-American summit in Colombia to prepare for Sunday's meeting.
Senior Socialist Party official Jorge Rodriguez, who is expected to attend Sunday's talks, said the opposition needed to renounce violence in the streets and to reject neo-liberal economics like those being applied in Argentina and Brazil.
"I think the president has called for a national dialogue more than 50 times," he told local TV.
"The only ones who have not sat down to talk are the opposition sectors due to those internal fights they have, their battle for the eventual (presidential) candidacy," he said, referring to the next presidential vote due in late 2018.
Sunday's planned meeting follows massive opposition marches and a partially successful national strike last week.
The opposition is also planning a march on the Miraflores presidential palace for Thursday, drawing government accusations they want to reprise a short-lived 2002 coup against Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez. He allowed and won a recall referendum.
(Editing by Mary Milliken)