Venezuela peace talks in Oslo provide glimmer of hope

Oslo (AFP) –


Locked in a bitter power struggle, representatives of Venezuela's regime and the opposition held peace talks this week in a secret location in Oslo in a bid to end a five-month political crisis, media reported Thursday.

The development was hailed cautiously by experts.

Venezuela has been in political turmoil since assembly speaker Juan Guaido declared himself acting president in January in a direct challenge to President Nicolas Maduro's authority.

Norway's NRK radio and television network, quoting anonymous sources, said the peace talks had taken place at a secret location in the Norwegian capital for "several days" and the delegations were due to return to Caracas on Thursday.

It is the second time that such talks have been held in Oslo between Maduro's regime and Guaido's representatives, NRK said, adding that negotiations had also taken place in Cuba.

"We can neither confirm nor deny Norway's involvement in peace processes or dialogue initiatives," a Norwegian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Ane Haavardsdatter Lunde, told AFP.

Several South American media outlets, such as daily ALnavio, also reported talks were held in the Scandinavian country.

Venezuelan Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez and the governor of Miranda province Hector Rodriguez represented Maduro's government, media reports said.

The opposition was represented by former deputy Gerardo Blyde, former minister Fernando Martinez Mottola and the vice president of the National Assembly Stalin Gonzalez.

- 'Very important mission' -

Several official statements appear to lend credence to the reports.

In Caracas, Maduro said Jorge Rodriguez "is overseas, on a very important mission".

Guaido meanwhile wrote on Twitter, "The Contact Group, Canada, Great Britain, Norway, the Lima group as well as other initiatives are helping us find a solution to the crisis."

Norway, home of the Nobel Peace Prize and the now-defunct Israeli-Palestinian Oslo accords, has a long tradition of playing the role of "facilitator" in peace processes around the world, including that in Colombia between the government and the FARC rebels in 2016.

Guaido, the leader of Venezuela's opposition-controlled legislature, has been engaged in a fierce power struggle with Maduro, who has presided over a spiralling political and economic crisis in Venezuela since taking over from late leftist leader Hugo Chavez in 2013.

Maduro was re-elected to a second term in May 2018, in a vote boycotted by the opposition and rejected by much of the international community.

Guaido declared himself acting president on January 23, calling Maduro's re-election illegitimate. The opposition leader has since been recognised by more than 50 countries, led by the United States.

Norway however has merely called for new free elections in Venezuela, a position seen as illustrating a willingness to act as a mediator between the two sides.

- 'Cautious optimism' -

At the end of January, Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide said her country was "ready to contribute if and when the parties so wish".

Reports of this week's talks were hailed, albeit cautiously, by Norwegian South America experts.

"It's dangerous to read to much into it," University of Oslo professor Benedicte Bull told AFP.

"It's very positive that the two parties are holding talks but it's very important to not hold out too much hope: there have been formal talks three times in the past, and they all collapsed quickly."

"That said, the situation is very critical today, and it's important that something be done," she said.

Leiv Marsteintredet, a professor at the University of Bergen, echoed that sentiment.

"We're still at an early stage and therefore I think it's very unrealistic to expect any quick results," he told AFP.

"But the fact that the two sides want to talk is a recent change that could justify some cautious optimism."

In addition to the political crisis, marked by clashes that have claimed dozens of lives, Venezuela has been mired in its worst economic crisis in modern times, with a quarter of the population in need of urgent humanitarian aid, according to the UN.