Representatives of the two sides signed an agreement on Friday in Mexico City, officially inaugurating the start of the dialogue mediated by Norway and hosted by the Mexican government.
For its part, the opposition in the oil-producing South American country wants Maduro to release dozens of people it considers political prisoners and provide guarantees its candidates can run in regional elections due in November. It has also requested that humanitarian aid, such as COVID-19 vaccines, be allowed in.
Norway also helped broker previous talks in 2019 that ultimately came to nothing. In 2016, the Vatican supported similar talks that also failed.
Expectations for success during the first round to take place in Mexico have been tempered by past experience.
“Conditions in Venezuela are simply not there for upcoming talks to provide a ‘big bang’ moment that will dislodge [Maduro] from the presidential palace and immediately restore democracy,” Maryhen Jimenez, an academic at the Latin American Centre at the University of Oxford, wrote in Americas Quarterly.
Returning to the negotiating table is a change of tack for the opposition, which accused Maduro in the past of using dialogue to gain time and relieve international pressure.
Venezuelan government officials abandoned the 2019 talks in Barbados and Norway after the US stepped up sanctions against the Maduro administration.
Signs of serious talks
Washington has signalled a willingness to ease sanctions if Maduro were to show signs of serious negotiation with the opposition.
But President Joe Biden’s administration has broadly maintained measures against Venezuela’s economy and continued supporting opposition leader Juan Guaido, recognised as the country’s legitimate leader by Washington and other governments.
In January 2019, Guaido declared an interim presidency after calling Maduro’s re-election in 2018 fraudulent. But Guaido’s position has weakened since then, largely due to disappointment that he has been unable to usher in a political transition.
Maduro’s position has been shored up by support from Russia and China, and the sources close to the talks said that Russian delegates would be present at the Mexico City talks.
According to Reuters news agency, the opposition delegation will include former mayor and lawyer Gerardo Blyde; the ambassador to Colombia appointed by the 2015 parliament, Tomas Guanipa; the ambassador of the Guaido government in the US, Carlos Vecchio; and former legislator Stalin Gonzalez.
Venezuela “needs and deserves a solution,” Guaido wrote on social media on Friday.
Guaido, who declared himself Venezuela’s president in 2019 through his position as parliament speaker, wants guarantees over electoral conditions and a clear program for presidential elections, as well as the release of political prisoners.
The Maduro administration’s negotiating group will be led by Jorge Rodriguez, president of the National Assembly elected in December, and Hector Rodriguez, governor of the state of Miranda and a close confidant of the president.
Maduro said in a live broadcast on state TV on Thursday evening that his son, Nicolas “Nicolosito” Maduro Guerra, a 31-year-old lawmaker, would also participate in the talks.
The Venezuelan crisis has generated a massive exodus that the Organization of American States recently estimated would reach seven million people by 2022, the largest in the world, exceeding the likes of Syria.