Bloomberg — Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro is finalizing plans to host an international summit aimed at reigniting negotiations between Venezuela’s beleaguered government and its opposition parties, a move that will put him at the forefront of a global push to resolve the country’s political crisis before presidential elections next year.
Petro will formally invite officials from Latin America, Europe and the US to attend the meeting after the Easter holiday, the Colombian Foreign Affairs Ministry said. The conference in Bogota could occur as early as this month, according to people with direct knowledge of the plans. Both sides in Venezuela as well as Norway, which has mediated past talks, have given the green light to the idea, the people said.
Petro and the Colombian government initially announced plans for the conference in late March. But details and timing of the summit, as well as support for it among key stakeholders, have not been previously reported.
The event will seek to end a four-month stalemate between President Nicolas Maduro’s government and opposition parties. Stop-and-start talks between the two sides stalled again following the last round of negotiations in November, amid Maduro’s claims that the $3.1 billion humanitarian agreement reached last year remains unfulfilled. Venezuelan funds he wants released remain frozen.
Petro wants the meeting to create “the road map” for “effective political dialogue” ahead of the 2024 presidential election, he said in a tweet last week. Opposition primaries are scheduled for October, but the two sides have yet to reach agreements on critical electoral conditions for next year’s contest.
The successful resumption of talks would count as a major win for Petro, who has yet to receive a formal invitation to visit the White House, even as the Colombian government is often seen as an unofficial conduit between the US and Maduro. The Biden administration has pushed for renewed negotiations for months but has made little progress.
Stalin González, a member of the Venezuelan opposition delegation, welcomed both Petro’s initiative and the world’s interest in finding a solution to the political crisis that has enveloped the country under Maduro.
“We must give this the sense of urgency that it deserves, 2024 is just around the corner,” González said. “This seeks to help the existing negotiation process keep working.”
Opposition parties are not expected to attend the conference, but members of the delegation could hold a separate meeting with Petro before it begins, González said.
The Colombian government confirmed Petro’s intention to meet directly with opposition members but hasn’t yet said if or when a meeting would occur. It said the conference was a “key subject” of Petro and Maduro’s most recent bilateral meeting in Caracas on March 23.
The Venezuelan government has not publicly discussed the conference and did not respond to a request for comment.
Petro has become a strong ally of Maduro’s, meeting with his neighboring leader four times since the rekindling of Colombia and Venezuela’s formal political relationship last August. Among world leaders, only Chilean President Gabriel Boric has met with Petro more often.
Formerly a pariah, Maduro has slowly reemerged onto the international stage after opposition leader Juan Guaidó's failure to oust him caused support to slip. Petro opened a direct channel with the Venezuelan opposition after the dissolution of Guaidó's so-called interim government in January, people with direct knowledge of the situation said.
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Any conclusions reached at the meetings will then be taken to the opposition, the people said.
The Colombian government has discussed the idea with Norway, which mediated negotiations in Mexico, from the beginning of the planning process, people familiar with the situation said. Colombian officials also looped US authorities into the plan during a recent high-level visit to Washington, the people said.
Neither Norway’s diplomatic representative to Venezuela nor the US Department of State responded to requests for comment.
“We’re willing to participate,” US Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols said in a televised interview following Petro’s announcement of the plans. “We’re concerned about the situation of the Venezuelan people.”
The EU is also open to the idea, according to Josep Borrell, its foreign policy chief.
“Any initiative that promotes Venezuela’s normalization and democratization is welcome,” he said, according to Europa Press.
The Venezuelan government recently said that it wanted the US and Europe to lift all remaining sanctions before it returned to the table, adding to a list of conditions that already included the implementation of the humanitarian agreement.
The date of the conference has not been set, but it will most likely be held in mid-April, according to the people familiar with the plans.
--With assistance from Oscar Medina
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