Venezuelan government, opposition leaders continue dialogue

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Venezuelan opposition delegate Gerardo Blyde Perez, from left, Norwegian diplomat Dan Nylander, Venezuelan President of the National Assembly Jorge Rodriguez and Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, attend talks in Mexico City, Friday, Aug. 13, 2021. The government of Venezuela and its opposition are set to begin a new dialogue this week looking for a change in the South American nation’s prolonged political standoff. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Government and Venezuelan opposition representatives on Friday continued a dialogue aimed at finding a common path out of their country’s political standoff.

The groups met in Mexico City two weeks after signing a memorandum of understanding that marked the start of the negotiations. The delegates of President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, were expected to debate issues such as conditions for elections and the lifting of foreign economic sanctions imposed on the government.

Last month’s release from prison of opposition leader Freddy Guevara, as well as the opposition coalition’s announcement this week that it would participate in upcoming regional elections, were seen by both sides as the first results of the process, which is expected to last at least six months.

Maduro indicated this week that his delegation will demand the lifting of the economic sanctions imposed on his government more than three years ago by the U.S. and other countries and the freeing of some of Venezuela’s assets abroad.

He said his delegates will present a plan containing everything needed for Venezuela’s economic recovery, as well as restoring his government’s access to gold reserves held at the Bank of England and ending sanctions against the state oil company.

But the decision to end economic sanctions is in the hands of foreign governments — notably the United States — not those at the table in Mexico City.

U.S. Department of State spokesman Ned Price last month said that Maduro “can create a path toward sanctions relief by allowing Venezuelans to participate in free and fair presidential, parliamentary and local elections that should have taken place long ago.”

The U.S. and other countries withdrew recognition of Maduro after accusing him of rigging his most recent reelection as president. In his place, they recognized Guaidó, who was head of the then-opposition-dominated congress.

Millions of Venezuelans live in poverty, facing low wages, high food prices and the world’s worst inflation rate. The food assistance agency of the United Nations has estimated that one of every three Venezuelans is struggling to consume enough daily calories.

The country’s political, social and economic crises, entangled with plummeting oil production and prices, have continued to deepen with the pandemic.

The U.S. government eased a sanction in July so that people can eventually regain access to propane rather than cooking on coal or wood stoves. The decision was seen as a good-faith gesture to promote dialogue.

Before the start of the new phase of the talks Friday, Guaidó demanded guarantees from the Venezuelan leader of free and fair elections.

“We must and we will take action to save Venezuela,” he said in a message posted on social media.

But the opposition is much weaker than it was in failed negotiation attempts of recent years. Fewer than 10 of the more than 60 nations that once recognized Guaido’s self-proclaimed government still maintain that recognition, according to a report last month by the Wilson Center.

The memorandum of understanding signed Aug. 13 includes an agenda that includes a schedule for elections that would include observers, the lifting of sanctions, political and social coexistence, the renunciation of violence, reparation for victims of violence and protection of the economy and the population.

Norwegian diplomats are guiding the discussions.

The organization Human Rights Watch this week urged the opposition and government to adopt measures to restore respect for human rights and allow free elections.

“Venezuela is facing a devastating human rights and humanitarian emergency that should be front and center in any political negotiation,” the organization’s director for the Americas, José Miguel Vivanco, said in a statement. “For this type of negotiation to be a success, it needs to include tangible results that will restore the rule of law and the exercise of fundamental rights in Venezuela, including ending censorship and repression, freeing political prisoners, and allowing apolitical humanitarian aid into the country.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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