The protracted struggle for power in Venezuela is returning to negotiations, as representatives of President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó gathered Thursday to resolve a political crisis that has paralyzed the South American nation.
The meetings in Norway come two weeks after Guaidó’s call for the military to remove Maduro failed to ignite an uprising, and 17 months after the last round of talks collapsed.
“I understand the natural doubts that surge among you because of past frustrations with failed mechanisms,” Guaidó, president of Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly, said Thursday in Caracas.
“Let’s not confuse the objective with the mechanisms,” he said. “We have said we will try all options. Don’t get confused. We are in love with Venezuela, not with any mechanism.”
The decision to resume talks — despite doubts over their chances of success — underscores the mounting pressure on both sides.
Since Guaidó declared himself Venezuela’s interim president in January, the opposition has won the support of the United States and more than 50 other nations, flooded the streets with tens of thousands of protesters and peeled some officials away from Maduro’s inner circle.
But it has yet to deliver on its central promise: the removal of Maduro and the restoration of democracy.
Guaidó said that where the opposition is concerned, that is the only objective of the talks.
“We will not participate in any false negotiation, nothing that doesn’t lead to the end of the usurpation, transitional government and free elections,” he said.
If the discussions are to succeed, they must overcome a number of obstacles. Maduro, who claimed victory last year in an election widely viewed as fraudulent, has been unwilling to loosen his grip on power. The opposition is largely unwilling to settle for anything less. Previous negotiations fractured quickly.
“To reach this agreement, we have to give the Chavistas, including government officials willing to do this with us, guarantees,” Stalin González, vice president of the National Assembly, told The Washington Post last week. “Guarantees that they won’t be persecuted, but also guarantees that they will still be able to have political power in democracy.”
Analysts described the challenges ahead.
“The fact that they’ve leaked can cause divisions and obstacles,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political consultant in Caracas. “Maduro, in turn, is feeling stronger and could use the negotiation to either buy time or finish burying the opposition.”
Geoff Ramsey, assistant director at the Washington Office of Latin America, said the talks show that the opposition and the government both have realized that they’re weaker than they initially thought.
“After April 30, neither side has tools to impose their strategy to the other, and where does that lead you? To the negotiating table.”
He noted that Norway has a record of expertise in negotiations, having played roles in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in strife in Sri Lanka, Colombia and Sudan. Such an interlocutor was lacking in previous dialogues, such as the talks in the Dominican Republic in December 2017.
Jorge Valero, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, said the socialist government would talk with the “democratic part” of the opposition, but not to those backed by President Trump.
“There is an opposition that can be classified as democratic but there’s another that are simply puppets of the U.S. empire,” he told reporters in Geneva, according to Reuters. It was unclear about whom, exactly, he was talking.
Maduro’s government has increased pressure on the opposition since Guaidó’s call for a military uprising last month failed.
Maduro’s intelligence police last week detained a vice president of the National Assembly, the first senior opposition official to be taken into custody since the failed effort to incite a military uprising. Maduro’s Supreme Court stripped several opposition lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity and charged them with rebellion, treason and conspiracy. Several have taken refuge in foreign embassies in Caracas.
Those moves appeared to signal a possible crackdown by the government. But talks in Norway could indicate that neither side thinks it is capable of winning the stalemate.
Opposition leaders have in the past been ambivalent about more dialogue with the government. When the 2017 talks collapsed, the opposition said Maduro was trying to extend his rule, not resolve the impasse.
More recently, the opposition has begun to discuss alternatives to a government overthrow, including the possibility of forming a joint administration with Maduro officials.
The Trump administration has tried to dislodge Maduro by stepping up sanctions against the government, the state-run oil industry and individual leaders. U.S. officials have said other options, including direct military intervention, remain on the table. They have warned that an arrest of Guaidó would be a red line.
Guaidó said Thursday that opposition officials will meet Monday with officials of the U.S. Southern Command.
Maduro’s foreign backers include Russia, China and Cuba.
Trump has expressed frustration at his administration’s aggressive strategy, complaining that he was misled about how easy it would be to replace Maduro with Guaidó, according to administration officials and White House advisers.
After a phone call this month with Vladimir Putin, Trump reported that the Russian president was “not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela.”
“And I feel the same way,” he said. “We want to get some humanitarian aid.”
Venezuela, once the wealthiest nation per capita in Latin America, has been besieged by hyperinflation, power outages and shortages of medicine, food and drinking water. The United Nations estimates that 3.7 million people have fled the country.