A flurry of diplomatic activity is underway to lay the ground work for fresh elections in Venezuela and resolve the nation's grinding crisis.
A mission from the International Contact Group, an initiative comprising eight EU member states and four Latin American countries, arrived in Caracas to present proposals to members of President Nicolas Maduro's autocratic regime and the opposition Thursday and Friday. Separately, both government and Juan Guaido, head of the powerless legislature who says he is the nation's rightful president, have sent envoys to Oslo for talks at the invitation of Norway.
Guaido confirmed that he had sent representatives to Oslo, and said at an event with industry leaders in Caracas that he would accept international assistance. After previous failed mediation efforts, much of the opposition has lost patience with "dialogues."
"I understand the natural doubts we have, but we're not in love with any proposal," Guaido told reporters. "Let's not confuse our objectives and dreams with the ways we can achieve them."
Venezuela's warring factions have been at loggerheads for months, paralyzing the nation as dysfunction, hunger and hyperinflation wear down a weary population. Guaido has rallied millions of his countrymen and more than 50 nations behind him in his drive for regime change, but has failed to dislodge Maduro. The 56-year-old autocrat has withstood bloody protests and crippling international sanctions, largely thanks to support from the military and allies like Russia and China.
The discussions in Caracas and Oslo seemed to signal that both sides were changing their strategies, accepting mediation at the highest levels. Ahead of the ICG's arrival in Venezuela, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters in Brussels this week that the mission would meet "not only with the two sides, but also with different stakeholders in Caracas."
The International Contact Group, or ICG, was formed earlier this year to facilitate negotiations and has since sent technical missions to survey the depth of Venezuela's collapse and to meet with leaders.
Maja Kocijancic, an EU spokeswoman, said in an email that the ICG seeks to find a "democratic solution and to discuss a possible way forward with a view to create the conditions for a negotiated electoral path."
The meetings are occurring at a low point 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.
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 representatives could mean negotiation is on the horizon.
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."
Since kicking off a wave of protests this year, Guaido has demanded that Maduro step down so fresh elections can be held. Until now, the opposition has refused the government's repeated calls for talks, claiming they are a mere ploy to ease pressure in the streets. Regional leaders and the Vatican have tried to broker solutions during previous waves of unrest, but each attempt failed.
Lawmakers and aides with direct knowledge of the discussions said Guaido tapped three confidants to attend the exploratory talks in Oslo: former East Caracas Mayor Gerardo Blyde, former Transport Minister Fernando Martinez Mottola and National Assembly Vice President Stalin Gonzalez. Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez and Miranda state Governor Hector Rodriguez made up the government delegation, the people said.
Maduro hasn't addressed the talks directly, but said during a Cabinet meeting broadcast on state television Wednesday evening that Rodriguez was absent because he "was taking part in a very important mission abroad."
Talks have been going on in Oslo for "several days" at a secret location, according to Norwegian state broadcaster NRK. While the parties have also met in Cuba, this is the second time negotiators are in Norway, NRK said.
The Norwegian Foreign Ministry declined to comment. The country hasn't recognized Guaido as Venezuela's rightful leader.
In January, Guaido took the reins of the National Assembly and invoked a provision in the nation's charter to launch an 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.
The Trump administration, one Guaido's most outspoken backers, has blacklisted many top regime figures and slapped sanctions on key industries such as oil and gold. On Wednesday, the U.S. suspended all commercial passenger and cargo flights between the U.S. and Venezuela.
The last significant talks, held in the Dominican Republic last year, broke down when the government refused to 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 elections widely criticized as rigged.
(Fabiola Zerpa and Jonas O Bergman contributed to this report.)