Venezuela rivals hold exploratory talks on crisis

Erika SANTELICES con Alex VÁSQUEZ en Caracas
Emissaries of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro -- Delcy Rodriguez (L) and Jorge Rodriguez (R) -- hold exploratory talks with mediators in the Dominican Republic seeking to arrange a dialogue with the opposition over political turmoil in Caracas

Talks between Venezuela's government and opposition inched closer Wednesday as delegates from both sides began exploratory contacts with mediators in the Dominican Republic.

Jorge Rodriguez, a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, said some progress had been made towards face-to-face negotiations.

"We are very close to resolving many of the points on the agenda," he told reporters in the capital of the Caribbean state.

The opposition delegation was expected to meet Dominican President Danilo Medina, who is trying to broker a breakthrough in the crisis along with ex-Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

The talks were announced late Tuesday by Maduro who told a cabinet meeting that he had accepted Medina and Zapatero's offer and would send Rodriguez with a delegation to the Dominican Republic.

Rodriguez was accompanied his sister Delcy Rodriguez, who chairs the all-powerful Constituent Assembly, and the veteran Venezuelan diplomat Roy Chaderton.

Rodriguez did not say if he expected to have a face-to-face meeting with the opposition delegation.

One of the opposition delegates, Julio Borges, warned Wednesday that a formal dialogue would only be possible if Maduro accepted the opposition's conditions and if there was international involvement.

The conditions include setting a timetable for elections and freeing political prisoners.

Borges is speaker of the opposition-dominated parliament, which was superseded in July by the Constituent Assembly packed with Maduro allies.

An opposition MP said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was seeking to broaden the international mediation in the talks.

"Antonio Guterres is trying to form a group of countries that will mediate and guarantee a dialogue and compliance with the results," Henry Ramos Allup told reporters in Caracas.

He said the proposal was that each side choose two countries to participate in the talks.

Ramos Allup said, however, that the idea of extending the mediation process had not gone beyond a proposal at this point.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who has accused Zapatero of siding with the government, called for the Vatican and the UN to be involved in the talks process.

The opposition walked out of the last negotiations, brokered by the Vatican last year, accusing the government of not fulfilling pledges made during the talks.

- Conditional dialogue -

A repeat of that failure in Santo Domingo would likely worsen the already catastrophic situation in Venezuela where Maduro had to weather a wave of opposition protests that left 125 people dead between April and July.

The invitation by Medina and Zapatero "to move towards a process of negotiation and political accord" was welcomed by the governments of France and Spain, among several countries which have been heavily critical of Maduro.

However, Spain's Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis warned that action by the Maduro government was needed, following talks with his Venezuelan counterpart Jorge Arreaza in Madrid.

"It is not enough that the Venezuelan government expresses its desire to maintain a dialogue with the opposition," said Dastis.

International powers accuse Maduro of dismantling democracy by taking over state institutions in a bid to counter opposition pressure for him to quit, amid an economic crisis that has caused shortages of food and medicine.

They accused him of a blatant power grab in July with the formation of a Constituent Assembly packed with his allies, wresting legislative power from the opposition-dominated national assembly