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Venezuela's Guaido backs easing U.S. sanctions as incentive for elections

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido gestures while wearing a face mask with the writing "Vaccines, now!" during a protest to demand that all people get vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Caracas, Venezuela April 17, 2021. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/File Photo reuters_tickers
This content was published on May 12, 2021 - 08:10

By Vivian Sequera and Sarah Kinosian

CARACAS (Reuters) -Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido proposed on Tuesday a progressive lifting of U.S. sanctions as an incentive for President Nicolas Maduro to schedule "free and fair" elections with parties opposed to his government.

Guaido, in a video on his Twitter account, proposed a "national agreement" including a timetable for general elections in the South American country involving an opposition coalition, as well as Maduro's ruling Socialist Party.

The proposal suggests the opposition may be willing to reverse its strategy of electoral abstention and resume negotiations with the government, after talks collapsed in 2019. In December, most of the opposition boycotted legislative elections, saying voting conditions were not fair.

The OPEC nation is preparing for gubernatorial elections this year.

"Venezuela is experiencing the worst crisis in its entire history," said Guaido, adding "we must reach an agreement to save Venezuela."

Guaido said any agreement must include a schedule for "free and fair" presidential, parliamentary, regional and municipal elections with international observers, democratic guarantees and entry of humanitarian aid and COVID-19 vaccines. The progressive lifting of sanctions would be contingent on Maduro's government adhering to those conditions, among others.

Maduro responded on Tuesday night during a live broadcast on state television, saying the opposition was looking to participate in elections this year.

"If he [Guaido] wants to join the dialogues that are already underway, developing on all issues, he is welcome to join," Maduro said.

"[Guaido] was left out of everything, he was isolated and defeated," added the Venezuelan president. He made no reference to an agreement.

Earlier this month Maduro named a new elections council with two members linked to the opposition, but Guaido referenced the move as an "alleged concession" that sought to divide the opposition.

Guaido declared an interim presidency in January 2019, labeling Maduro's re-election the previous year a fraud. Western democracies, led by the United States, recognize Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader, while Maduro remains in office with the backing of Cuba, Russia, China and the military.

In 2019, opposition efforts to seek a new presidential election via negotiations with Maduro allies fell apart after the government's representatives walked away in protest at then-U.S. President Donald Trump's tightening of sanctions on the vital oil sector.

Critics within Venezuela's opposition coalition had argued Maduro was negotiating in bad faith and using the talks to buy time.

WILLINGNESS TO NEGOTIATE

In recent weeks, Maduro has released jailed former executives of U.S.-based oil refining company Citgo to house arrest, named a new elections council and allowed the World Food Programme to distribute aid.

One State Department official said these actions looked like gestures toward Washington, but insisted the Biden administration not in a hurry to ease sanctions. [L1N2MK2Y0]

A senior White House official told Reuters Maduro was "sending signals", but added that such moves were insufficient without tangible progress toward elections.

Guaido, in the address, dismissed the two opposition-linked members to Venezuela's election board as part of a government effort to divide the opposition.

Maduro has not shown any willingness to bring forward presidential elections due in 2024.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Guaido's statement. Washington's ambassador to Venezuela, James Story, said on Twitter the United States supported Guaido's push for fair elections and that minimum conditions included release of political prisoners, greater freedom of the press and rehabilitation of political parties.

"The solution to the crisis lies in a comprehensive agreement," Story said.

Maduro has said Washington's sanctions are causing an economic crisis in Venezuela, which has some of the world's largest oil reserves. His critics blame Venezuela's economic troubles on long-term corruption, mismanagement and lack of investment.

(Reporting by Sarah Kinosian; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Alexander Smith, David Gregorio and Toby Chopra)

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