PARIS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s government and opposition will hold a round of talks in the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, France’s foreign minister said on Tuesday, warning Caracas that it risked EU sanctions if it failed to engage in negotiations.
Venezuela was convulsed for months by demonstrations against leftist President Nicolas Maduro, accused by critics of knocking the oil-rich country into its worst-ever economic crisis and bringing it to the brink of dictatorship.
“I was happy to learn that dialogue with the opposition would restart tomorrow in the Dominican Republic,” Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement after meeting his Venezuelan counterpart, Jorge Arreaza Montserrat, in Paris.
Venezuela’s Democratic Unity Coalition said it would send a delegation to meet with Dominican President Danilo Medina to discuss the conditions under which dialogue could be held, but denied that any talks as such had begun.
“The invitation by (Medina) does NOT represent the start of a formal dialogue with the government,” the coalition said in a statement. “To begin serious negotiations, we demand immediate concrete actions that show true willingness to solve problems rather than to buy time.”
The statement reiterated long standing opposition demands including the release of political prisoners, respect for the opposition-run congress and measures to ease a crippling economic crisis.
Le Drian said Wednesday’s meeting would involve Medina and former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed his full support for the talks.
“The Secretary-General encourages the Venezuelan political actors to seize this opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to address the country’s challenges through mediation and peaceful means,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.
Maduro routinely calls for dialogue with the opposition, but his adversaries see dialogue as a stalling mechanism that burnishes the government’s image without producing concrete results.
In a televised broadcast on Tuesday evening, he voiced renewed support for dialogue and said he was sending Socialist Party heavyweight Jorge Rodriguez to represent the government in the Dominican Republic.
A dialogue process brokered by Zapatero and backed by the Vatican in 2016 did little to advance opposition demands.
Many Maduro critics believe opposition leaders were duped in that dialogue process, and have grown suspicious of Zapatero as an intermediary.
Like fellow-EU member Spain a few days earlier, Le Drian also warned Arreaza that if the situation continued there would be consequences.
“I reminded him of the risk of European sanctions and the need to rapidly see evidence from Venezuela that it is ready to relaunch negotiations with the opposition and engage in a sincere and credible process,” he said.
Reporting by John Irish in Paris and Diego Ore and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Brian Love and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Leigh Thomas and Sandra Maler