Venezuela's government will skip a round of Norway-brokered talks on Thursday and Friday to protest a new set of U.S. sanctions meant to force President Nicolas Maduro from power, the Venezuelan information ministry said on Wednesday.
The decision surprised representatives of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who were already on the Caribbean island of Barbados awaiting what was to be the start Thursday of the sixth round of talks that began in May under the auspices of Norway.
"We Venezuelans have watched with profound indignation how the chief of the opposition, Juan Guaidó, celebrates, promotes and supports these harmful actions against our nation's sovereignty and our peoples' most basic human rights," the government said in a statement Wednesday night.
The government stopped short of abandoning the talks altogether, saying only that it would "review the mechanisms of this process to ensure its continuation is truly effective and harmonious with the interests of the people."
For weeks, representatives of Maduro and his would-be successor have been shuttling back and forth to Barbados trying to agree on a common path out of the country's prolonged political standoff. The meetings have been slow-going and shrouded in mystery, with neither side disclosing details.
But Maduro's supporters have accused the U.S. of trying to blow up the fragile process with sweeping new sanctions announced this week that freeze all of the government's assets in the U.S. and even threaten to punish companies from third countries that keep doing business with his socialist administration.
"They're trying to dynamite the dialogue," Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said Tuesday at a news conference to denounce comments by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton defending the asset freeze. "But nobody, not even 1,000 Trumps or 500 Boltons ... will make us abandon the negotiating table."
Maduro said Wednesday night that while he favors dialogue, he will not stand by idly as his opponents cheer on punitive measures by the U.S. that he believes will worsen hardships in a country already suffering from six-digit hyperinflation, medicine shortages and a recession now deeper than the U.S. Great Depression.
"Under these conditions, no," he said in a telephone call to a program on state TV hosted by socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello.
Maduro promised to lead a "counteroffensive" from the constitutional assembly — a rubber-stamp body set up to undermine Venezuela's opposition-controlled congress — to "bring justice to the sellouts and traitors."
Opposition leaders reacted to Maduro's withdrawal from the talks with a mix of disbelief and told-you-so admonishments.
"They've been saying for days they believe in peace and the Oslo mechanism, but at the first sign of change they fear the possibility of a real political change in the country," lawmaker Stalin Gonzalez, the head of Guaidó's negotiating team in Barbados, said on social media.
Speculation has swirled in political and diplomatic circles that Maduro's envoys have expressed a willingness to call an early presidential election under a revamped electoral board and foreign observation. The U.S. has insisted Maduro must give up power before any elections can be deemed credible.
Three people involved in the talks from different sides had described the environment as serious and cordial, with each delegation dining and traveling back and forth to the island from Caracas separately. All three insisted progress has been made, even if the thorny topic of elections is being left for last and an all-encompassing deal based on a six-point agenda is some way off. The people agreed to speak to The Associated Press only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to divulge details of the talks.
Such insider accounts differ sharply from the assessment of Bolton and other hardliners inside the Trump administration who have accused Maduro of using the talks to buy time.
"We will not fall for these old tricks of a tired dictator," Bolton declared Tuesday at a meeting in Peru of more than 50 governments aligned against Maduro. "No more time for tap, tap, tapping. Now is the time for action."
To be sure, nobody in the Trump administration has disavowed the talks, and some analysts believe Bolton's "bad cop" persona and his threats of more punitive actions to come may even provide a boost to the mediation effort.
Guaidó, who heads the opposition-controlled congress, has shown no willingness to ditch the talks despite pressure to do so from hawks inside his coalition who accuse him of turning a blind eye to Maduro's alleged torturing of opponents.
Maduro, although severely weakened by the U.S. sanctions and increasingly isolated internationally, still enjoys the support of powerful allies like Russia and China. He also has the backing of the military, the traditional arbiter of disputes in Venezuela. Neither the military nor the U.S. has been a party to the talks, even though Maduro's main goal is the removal of U.S. sanctions.
Meanwhile, Guaidó's momentum has stalled since he declared himself interim president in January over what the U.S. and some 50 other nations saw as Maduro's fraudulent re-election last year. Demonstrations that at the start of the year filled the streets of Caracas have thinned to a trickle and a military uprising called for by Guaidó in April ended with several opposition lawmakers on the run or in exile.
"As long as each side pursues a winner-take-all approach, they are less willing to make concessions and a deal will remain elusive," said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.