Venezuela's government and opposition will restart talks in Mexico with sanctions, political prisoners and elections on the table, but not the future of President Nicolás Maduro.
Talks in the Dominican Republic in 2018 and Barbados a year later failed to produce a breakthrough in disputes centred on Maduro and Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader recognised as the rightful president by about 60 countries.
"This process is more elaborate and better constructed than the previous ones," a source close to the Norway-mediated dialogue told AFP.
An organisational meeting is planned for Friday while the official start of the talks is set for August 30.
"We have made a set of demands and we hold firmly to them: first of all, the immediate lifting of all the criminal sanctions," said Maduro, referring to the raft of international measures imposed on himself and top government officials, including a US oil embargo against the state oil company PDVSA.
The opposition led by Guaidó wants guarantees over electoral conditions and a clear programme for presidential elections, as well as freeing political prisoners, including former legislator Freddy Guevara, who was detained just before talks began.
"There could be a softening of certain sanctions [and] on themes such as political prisoners and the institutional recognition of the opposition," said Luis Vicente León, the director of pollsters Datanálisis.
'Nothing to offer'
Guaidó declared himself Venezuela's president in 2019 through his position as parliament speaker.
The opposition-dominated National Aseembly had claimed Maduro's 2018 re-election was fraudulent, a view shared by the European Union and United States.
That led to a raft of new sanctions against the government at a time when Venezuela was gripped by the worst economic crisis in its modern history: eight years of recession and four years of hyperinflation have decimated an economy that has lost 80 percent of its value since 2014.
Despite the rival presidential claims, Maduro never lost control of the country's institutions, in particular the armed forces, while Guaidó was replaced as parliament speaker after the opposition boycotted legislative elections in December.
Neither Maduro or Guaidó will attend the talks, but the government holds most of the cards.
"The opposition has nothing to offer" other than "the relationship with those that do, which is the international community," said León.
"The opposition can make requests and incorporate it into the negotiations but the decisions will be made by the countries" that have imposed sanctions on Maduro.
The European Union, US and Canada have shown they are open to revising the sanctions if they see significant progress towards "credible, inclusive and transparent" elections, added León.
'Not on the ropes'
The Mexico process follows a domestic negotiation, which resulted in the liberation of some political prisoners and the replacement of some electoral authorities – moves that were well received in Brussels and Washington.
"The conditions are in place for an agreement to be reached if there is the will from both parties," said Pedro Benítez, a columnist and university professor.
Having boycotted the last legislative and presidential elections, the opposition has shown signs it is prepared to contest mayoral and gubernatorial polls in November.
Benitez believes that with the regional elections on the horizon, these talks in Mexico could "give back to the people trust in the vote" as long as "whoever wins, the victory is recognised."
What is sure, though, is that Maduro is going nowhere.
"Maduro is not on the ropes," said Leon. "Is he affected? Yes. Are there sanctions? Yes. Does he want to resolve them? Yes ... Is he on the brink of leaving power? No."
León added there is little chance the opposition will succeed in its demand to bring forward the 2024 presidential election.
by Javier Tovar, AFP