Venezuela government, opposition in fresh talks on crisis
Santo Domingo (DR): Delegates from the Venezuelan government and opposition met on Friday in the Dominican Republic for a third round of talks on resolving the country's protracted crisis ahead of this year's presidential election.
The two-day meeting, on the neutral ground of the Dominican Republic, comes after the government of President Nicolas Maduro threatened to ban key opposition parties from the election.
The opposition, in turn, threatened to resume street protests which cost the lives of 125 people last year.
The atmosphere was tense as the talks got under way.
The head of the government delegation, communications minister Jorge Rodriguez, accused the opposition of paying lip service to the talks while planning to "return to the strategy of violence."
"We do not need to go to the Dominican Republic if they do not want to," he said on the eve of the talks. "Go to the streets. We will wait for them in the streets."
Juan Andres Mejia of the Popular Will opposition party was pessimistic.
"It seems to be in the air that we will not be able to advance," said Mejia, whose party leader Leopoldo Lopez is under house arrest. He said the negotiations will only work if the government commits to free and fair presidential elections, the date of which has yet to be set.
Maduro insisted the talks could yield a "preliminary deal," saying in a national address that he had instructed his negotiators to make progress.
"Let's not give the opposition any excuses to run off looking for violence," he said.
Venezuela's all-powerful Constituent Assembly, loyal to Maduro, has ordered the three main opposition parties to re- register with the National Electoral Council (CNE) in order to take part in the presidential election.
The rule was imposed after the parties boycotted mayoral elections in December, saying they lacked transparency.
The opposition want the government to recognise their call for a more neutral CNE, international observers at the polls, the release of political prisoners and a later timeline for the election. However, analysts believe it is likely the election will be in the first half of the year, as Maduro will seek to take advantage of opposition disarray evident in a string of electoral defeats late last year.
The government is demanding opposition recognition of the Constituent Assembly, set up by Maduro last year at the height of the opposition campaign to depose him. It has ruled with absolute powers since August.
Adding to the uncertainty around the talks, two of the countries that brokered them are threatening to pull out of the process: Mexico