December 1, 2017 / 6:01 AM / 10 months ago

Venezuela government, foes to resume talks but optimism in short supply

CARACAS/SANTO DOMINGO, Dec 1 (Reuters) - Members of Venezuela’s leftist government and opposition coalition will meet in the Dominican Republic on Friday to resume talks aimed at resolving the OPEC nation’s long-running and often bloody political standoff.

Various attempts at dialogue in recent years have failed, with foes accusing President Nicolas Maduro of exploiting the talks to buy time and Maduro saying the opposition prefers violence.

But few Venezuelans expect a breakthrough this time, with opposition supporters disillusioned at seeing Maduro consolidate power and position himself for possible re-election in 2018.

The Democratic Unity coalition - which failed to dislodge Maduro in months of street protests this year that led to about 125 deaths - is pressing for a guarantee of free and fair elections next year.

It also wants a foreign humanitarian aid corridor to alleviate one of the worst economic crises in modern history, as well as freedom for several hundred jailed activists and respect for the opposition-led congress.

The opposition’s bargaining power, however, has been weakened by a surprising defeat in October gubernatorial elections. Furthermore, the multi-party group is divided, with more militant sectors opposing the talks.

“The dialogue they are planning to start is a parody ... an instrument for the regime to gain time and keep itself in power,” said Antonio Ledezma, an opposition leader who escaped house arrest this month to seek asylum abroad.


Strengthened by the October vote and anticipating another win in mayoral elections set for December, which the opposition is boycotting, Maduro has instructed his negotiators to focus on opposition to U.S. sanctions against his government.

President Donald Trump has slapped individual sanctions on a raft of officials from Maduro down, accused of rights abuses, corruption and drugs crimes, as well as economic measures intended to prevent the Venezuelan government from issuing new debt.

Maduro has blamed the U.S. measures for Venezuela’s economic problems - which in fact began several years ago amid failed statist policies and a plunge in global oil prices - and wants any potential deal with the opposition to include joint pressure on Washington to back off.

There is no indication, however, that Trump would be prepared to ease pressure on Maduro, whom he has called “a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator.” On the contrary, U.S. officials say Washington could strengthen sanctions unless Maduro enacts democratic changes.

Government negotiators in Santo Domingo also want recognition for Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly - an entirely pro-Maduro superbody elected in July despite an opposition boycott and widespread international condemnation.

With an eye to its push to refinance more than $120 billion in foreign debt, Maduro would also like the opposition-led congress to agree to approve any negotiations with bondholders, a potential loophole to get round the U.S. sanctions.

“We are going into dialogue to seek a path of political, economic and social stability so we can reach the (2018) presidential elections with a guarantee of peace,” said one of the government representatives, Elias Jaua.

Foreign ministers from Chile, Mexico, Bolivia, Nicaragua and host Dominican Republic are due to join the meeting as guarantors. The talks are scheduled over two days at the Foreign Ministry building in Santo Domingo.

“Major near-term breakthroughs remain unlikely given the complexity of issues on the table and the distance between each side’s preferences,” said Eurasia group consultancy. (Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)

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