EU Mission Heads to Venezuela to Meet Dueling Political Factions

(Bloomberg) -- Representatives from a European Union initiative to resolve Venezuela’s simmering crisis are set to arrive in Caracas for meetings with the nation’s warring factions, according to National Assembly Vice President Stalin Gonzalez.

A mission from the International Contact Group, comprising eight EU member states and four Latin American countries, will present proposals to members of President Nicolas Maduro’s autocratic regime and the opposition Thursday and Friday. The plans to end the nation’s bitter impasse haven’t been made public, but the ICG said in a statement this month that they contained “concrete options for a peaceful and democratic solution.”

"We are going to wait to see what the Contact Group is proposing,” Gonzalez said Wednesday. “They put a lot of emphasis on observing free elections." On its founding earlier this year, the group underscored the importance of new elections supervised by international independent observers.

Maja Kocijancic, an EU spokeswoman, didn’t immediately respond to an email requesting confirmation of the visit.

‘Two Sides,’ ‘Stakeholders’

For months, Venezuela has been rocked by often violent unrest as Juan Guaido, the head of the powerless National Assembly who says he is the nation’s rightful president, rallies his countrymen and over 50 nations behind him to end Maduro’s rule. Even as hyperinflation, crippling international sanctions and dysfunction bring this oil-rich country low, the regime has clung to power thanks to support from the military and allies like Russia and China.

EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters in Brussels this week that the mission would meet with “not only with the two sides, but also with different stakeholders in Caracas,” without providing further details.

Observers say the visit could be the initial step toward breaking Venezuela’s stalemate. But expectations are low after opposition leadership tried to spark a military uprising last month and the regime responded with one of the most aggressive crackdowns to date. Guaido’s No. 2, National Assembly Vice President Edgar Zambrano, was jailed last week, and many other top allies have since fled the country or gone into hiding.

‘Usurpation Has to End’

Since kicking off a wave of protests earlier this year, Guaido has demanded that Maduro step down so fresh elections can be held. On Tuesday, he told reporters that his rival’s resignation was a prerequisite for any new election.

“In order to have real and free elections, the usurpation has to end beforehand," he said. For the moment, it can’t be the other way around," he said, alluding to the possibility of having Maduro in power while running as a presidential candidate.

Maduro has repeatedly called for a talks with the opposition, but critics says the overtures are a mere ploy to ease pressure in the streets. In recent years, regional leaders and the Vatican have tried to broker solutions during waves of unrest, but each attempt failed.

Last year’s talks in the Dominican Republic broke down when the opposition said the government refused to set a timeline and appoint electoral authorities who would enable a free and fair presidential vote. Since then, Maduro has dug in further, claiming to have won another six-year term in 2018 elections that were widely criticized as rigged.

In January, Guaido took the reins of the National Assembly and invoked a provision in the nation’s charter to launch a interim government. While the opposition-dominated legislature was stripped of nearly all functions in 2017, it is recognized by the U.S. and dozens of western nations as Venezuela’s only democratic institution.

Representatives from nations including France, Germany and Uruguay formed the ICG in February in Montevideo with the EU’s backing to facilitate negotiations. The group has since sent technical missions to survey the depth of the country’s collapse and and meet with leaders.

Geoff Ramsey, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights organization, said he was skeptical that this week’s meetings would lead to any immediate solution. Still, he said the fact that both sides were willing to meet with ICG representatives could mean an negotiation is on the horizon.

“It’s becoming increasing clear that neither side is as powerful as they once thought they were,” Ramsey said. “All options are being exhausted, and where that leads us is to the negotiating table.”

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