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Sunday July 21st, 2019 12:27AM

Norway mediation effort in Venezuela's crisis slows

By The Associated Press
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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó said Friday that the opposition's demand for presidential elections is not negotiable, slowing mediation efforts by Norway aimed at resolving Venezuela's political crisis.

"A new meeting isn't planned at the moment, until we can get what we've proposed on the agenda," said Guaidó at a rally in the central city of Valencia.

Guaidó's comment shows how hard it will be to negotiate a peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela, which has endured economic and political turmoil for years. Past talks between the government of President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition collapsed, deepening the acrimony.

The government of Maduro has previously suggested that elections be held for the opposition-controlled congress, rather than for the presidency.

Russia's state news agency Tass quoted Alexander Shchetinin, the Russian foreign ministry's director for Latin America, as saying that he understood another round of Norway-mediated talks would happen next week.

"But this is not a question for us, but for the Norwegian intermediaries," Shchetinin said at an economic forum in St. Petersburg.

Norway has hosted two rounds of exploratory talks in Oslo between the Venezuelan government and opposition. The opposition has insisted the starting point for negotiations be a willingness by Maduro to hold elections within a reasonable time frame.

"As long as both sides are hurting and don't see a way out, there's a possibility negotiations can succeed," said James Dobbins, a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation who served as special U.S. envoy to several crisis hotspots including Haiti and Afghanistan. "It's really the only hope left."

The slowing of the Norway's mediation effort comes amid regional diplomacy.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez traveled to Toronto for talks on Venezuela with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, hours after he met Venezuelan socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello in Cuba. Cuba is a close ally of Maduro's government.

"Cuba has a different position and that's one reason why it's important for us to talk to Cuba" about a solution to the Venezuelan crisis, Freeland said after meeting Rodríguez. She said "free and fair elections" is the way forward for Venezuela. Canada has joined the Trump administration in pressuring Maduro to resign.

Cabello had arrived in Cuba on Thursday. One of his first meetings was with Rodríguez, who said on Twitter they "discussed themes of international interest."

Guaidó, who heads the opposition-controlled congress, revived a flagging opposition movement in January by declaring himself Venezuela's rightful leader, quickly drawing recognition from the United States and more than 50 nations that say Maduro's re-election last year was illegitimate.

But Maduro, backed by the military as well as Cuba and Russia, has held on to power in the face of U.S. oil sanctions that are adding to misery in a nation hit hard by hyperinflation and widespread fuel, food and power shortages.

Also Friday, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, urging him to set up a unit to investigate and prosecute alleged crimes by Maduro and his associates.

"The long list of Maduro's crimes includes the illegal mining and trafficking of minerals, transnational drug trafficking, and theft of substantial sums of money from the Venezuelan government and hiding it in offshore bank accounts worldwide," Rubio said.

Maduro has denied any illegal activity and says the U.S. wants to overthrow him as a way to exploit Venezuela's natural resources.

In another development, the Trump administration said it will recognize the validity of Venezuelan passports for five years beyond their printed expiration dates. The State Department announced that the passports will be considered valid for visa applications and entry into the United States in recognition of a decision by Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Getting a new passport or an extension is expensive and lengthy for many Venezuelans. Many of the more than 4 million Venezuelans who fled the country in recent years had left without a valid passport.

___

Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. AP writers Michael Weissenstein and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Cuba, and Jim Heintz in Moscow, contributed to this report.

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