Venezuela's government and opposition have restarted talks to resolve the country's political crisis, but expectations are low. Economic ills have pushed the government back to the table, but concessions appear unlikely.
Two days of scheduled meetings between Venezuela's main opposition umbrella group, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), and President Nicolas Maduro's ruling Socialist Party have begun in the Dominican Republic.
The negotiations, slated to last through Saturday, have been initiated and organized by the Dominican government and the former president of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
Observers from several Latin American countries, including two of Maduro's main allies, Bolivia and Nicaragua, and two harsh critics, Mexico and Chile, are present. For the first time, the talks also include representatives from civil society groups. But several opposition parties are boycotting the talks, in addition to this month's mayoral elections.
"We hope that we can get something important for the people of Venezuela," said Dominican President Danilo Medina.
'Fight for basic rights'
The opposition delegation, led by National Assembly President Julio Borges, has said its main demands are the opening of a humanitarian channel to allow shipments of medicine and food, a change in the composition of the Electoral Council, the release of the inmates they consider to be "political prisoners" and the restitution of constitutional powers to parliament.
Borges said the opposition is also pushing for guarantees that next year's presidential election will be free and fair.
"We come today determined to fight for basic rights, such as the right to vote, the right to democracy," Borges said, adding that the opposition could also take to the streets.
"We hope to defend the rights that have been taken from Venezuelans."
Government calls for end to 'economic aggressions'
Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez, who is leading the government delegation, said the government side will listen to what the opposition has to say.
"But we will forcefully demand an immediate stop to the economic aggressions against Venezuela," he told reporters.
"We demand that the economic guarantees be fulfilled in Venezuela," he said, referring to the government's insistence for opposition leaders to call on the US to drop sanctions placed on the country.
In a televised broadcast on Friday, President Maduro claimed he had finally managed to bring his political adversaries to the negotiating table and start a "national dialogue for peace, for the prosperity of Venezuela." He stressed their deep differences, but thanked them for their "spirit of cooperation."
The economy has been hit by a fall in crude prices and sanctions, the government says, while the opposition points to corruption and mismanagement.
The opposition blames Maduro for bringing the economy to its knees, while Maduro blames US and EU sanctions.
Tensions in Venezuela escalated in March when the pro-government Supreme Court stripped the opposition-controlled congress of its remaining powers, leading to protests to oust Maduro's government. Some 120 people died in the ensuing street protests nationwide.
The political impasse and economic crisis have prompted fears of a refugee crisis in neighboring countries.
Read more: Could there be a Venezuelan refugee crisis?
Arrest in corruption probe
Meanwhile, Attorney General Tarek William Saab said late Friday that Diego Salazar, a relative of former oil czar Rafael Ramirez, had been detained as part of an investigation into a corruption scandal involving Andorra.
Maduro is overseeing what his administration calls a "crusade" against corruption. Some 65 oil executives have been detained.
The Salazar case appears to relate to what the US in 2015 said were some $2 billion (€1.7 billion euros) in laundered funds from Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela at the private bank Banca Privada D'Andorra.
jbh/cmk (Reuters, AP, EFE)