Mediation in Norway aims to resolve Venezuela crisis
By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA | Associated Press | Published: May 16, 2019
CARACAS, Venezuela — Diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving Venezuela's crisis accelerated on Thursday as the government and opposition sent envoys to talks in Norway, though the two sides' mutual mistrust and differences on key issues could prevent any quick solution.
The Norwegian attempt to mediate, confirmed by opposition officials, comes amid tensions that exploded in street violence when the opposition called in vain for a military uprising on April 30.
Details, including whether envoys from opposing camps would even negotiate directly, were scarce. The initiative coincides with outreach efforts from others: Opposition leader Juan Guaidó said in Caracas that he planned to meet a delegation from a mostly European group of nations later Thursday, and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland met Thursday with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez in Havana.
Norway has hosted secret peace talks over the years. They include the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in September 1993, talks between the Philippines government and Maoist rebels in 2011, and the brokering of a 2002 cease-fire between Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebel negotiators. Seven years ago, negotiators from the Colombian government and left-wing FARC rebels held their first direct talks in a decade in Norway.
The Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution has worked behind the scenes since last year to bring the two sides in Venezuela together. In October, it sponsored an initiative to bring a Harvard-trained conflict resolution expert to Caracas to foster dialogue. In recent months, with the support of Norway's foreign ministry and diplomats based in Bogota, Colombia, its representatives made several trips to Caracas.
Per Wiggen, an official from Norway's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, did not confirm planned talks in Oslo, though Norway has urged the two sides to talk since February. Minister Ine Eriksen Soereide told lawmakers on March 5 that Norway could be a mediator.
The representatives in Norway include Information Minister Jorge Rodríguez on the government side and Stalin González, a leading member of the opposition-controlled congress, according to opposition officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the initiative. Without elaborating, Maduro said Rodríguez was on a "very important" mission outside Venezuela.
The myriad diplomatic efforts reflect a recognition in Venezuela that neither side has been able to prevail in the struggle for power, leaving the country in a state of political paralysis after years of hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.
"You don't negotiate because you want to. You negotiate because you have to," said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the nongovernmental Washington Office on Latin America.
"It's become pretty clear neither has been able to impose their dominant strategy on the other," he said.
Ramsey added that the Venezuelan envoys would have to resist pressure from allies who don't want to compromise.
Guaidó confirmed that envoys were in Norway, but warned that the opposition won't enter into any "false negotiation."
He said any talks on resolving the Venezuelan crisis must lead to the end of President Nicolás Maduro's government, its replacement by a transitional administration and free and fair elections.
Maduro disputes opposition claims that his reelection last year was illegitimate and says U.S. sanctions imposed on Venezuela to try to oust him should be lifted.
Participation in the mediation effort is a reversal for the opposition, which has accused Maduro of using previous negotiations between 2016 and 2018 to play for time. Maduro, in turn, alleges the opposition tried to seize power by force. U.S. officials have said they are focusing on diplomatic and economic measures to force out Maduro. However, Guaidó said his Washington envoy would meet with the head of the U.S. Southern Command on Monday.
The opposition also says Cuba has propped up Maduro with military and intelligence help. Cuba has denied this. Marcelino Medina, Cuba's First Vice Minister of Foreign Relations, was in Norway on Tuesday and Wednesday as part of what his office called a tour of Scandinavian countries.
Meanwhile, the International Contact Group, comprising eight European nations, the European Union and four Latin American countries, has also been working on the Venezuelan problem. The group formed after Guaidó, the head of Venezuela's National Assembly, declared himself interim president in January in a direct challenge to Maduro, who says his government champions the socialist principles of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez.
The opposition, backed by more than 50 nations, says Venezuela's dire economic state is the result of years of corruption and mismanagement. Maduro, whose allies include Russia, blames the country's problems on more recent U.S. pressure.
In Washington, four demonstrators who had been protesting inside the Venezuelan Embassy for weeks were arrested Thursday. The protesters consider Maduro to be Venezuela's leader, but the U.S. recognized Guaidó's envoy as ambassador.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza denounced the arrests as a violation of diplomatic immunity and international law.
Associated Press journalists Scott Smith in Caracas, Michael Weissenstein in Havana, Mark Lewis in Stavanger, Norway, and Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington, contributed to this report.