BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Sweden is hosting talks between major global powers with stakes in dealing with Venezuela's political turmoil, the latest effort to jumpstart flagging attempts to find a peaceful solution to the country's crisis.
A European diplomat said Thursday that representatives of Russia, the United Nations, the Vatican, Cuba and the European Union were attending the Stockholm meeting. An American official with knowledge of the discussions said the U.S. was invited but decided against participating.
"The talks in Stockholm are for backing the Norway dialogue," the European diplomat said, referring to talks in Oslo between Venezuela's government and opposition that have stalled in recent days. "All parties feel the need to keep as low key as possible because the mediation is going through a delicate phase."
The Stockholm meeting comes as a growing chorus of international actors press for a mediated solution to end Venezuela's power struggle. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó has channeled the frustrations of angry Venezuelans suffering from food shortages made worse by punishing U.S. oil sanctions but has been unable to weaken President Nicolás Maduro's grip on power and sway over the all-power military.
Guaidó in brief comments during a tour of the western state of Mérida told a crowd that Venezuela's crisis was being discussed in Stockholm on Thursday but offered no details.
"This meeting shows clearly that there's consensus in the world for new presidential elections," Guaidó said.
But another European diplomat with knowledge of the talks downplayed any hopes for an immediate breakthrough. He described the one-off meeting as more of an ice-breaking session aimed at sitting around the same table a number of external actors who can contribute to reconciliation efforts inside Venezuela.
To ease tensions, Guaidó or Maduro were intentionally marginalized from the meeting, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were supposed to be private. The original aim of the organizers was to court Russia with the understanding that Maduro's main military and financial backer is key to any solution to the stalemate.
A Venezuelan government source with knowledge of the talks characterized them as a waste of time, saying only low-level diplomats attended.
A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the talks and said Russia was being represented by Alexander Shchetinin, head of the ministry's South America department.
Enrique Iglesias, a seasoned Uruguayan diplomat recently appointed as the European Union's special envoy for Venezuela, was also participating in the meeting, according to one of the diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue.
Norway has sponsored two rounds of exploratory talks in recent weeks aimed at bringing the two sides together. Precious little about the talks has emerged. But under pressure from hardliners inside the opposition coalition Guaidó said last week that he would not partake in any more talks with government unless it yields to their demand for presidential elections.
About 50 nations, including the United States, consider Venezuela's 2018 presidential election illegitimate, in large part because strong opponents of Maduro were banned from running or exiled.
Maduro has stood by the validity of his re-election last year, showing no sign that he intends to go back to campaigning any time soon.
"Nobody who is straight in the head would sit across from a dictator thinking he is negotiating in good faith," Guaidó said last Friday.
But the opposition's options appear to be steadily dwindling. The initial enthusiasm among Venezuelans who poured into the streets by the thousands to support Guaidó has waned. An attempt to spark a military rebellion in late April quickly fizzled.
As the crisis drags on, droves of Venezuelans are continuing to flee and those who stay find their quality of life steadily deteriorating. The United Nations estimates 4 million have migrated in recent years to escape an imploding economy battered by hyperinflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine.
The government began circulating larger denominations bolivar bills Thursday as it tries to keep up with inflation. The central bank said the bills of 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 bolivars would help make payments and transactions "more efficient." But the biggest new bill is worth just about $8.
Several Venezuelans were skeptical that the new measure would help.
Rafael Gerardi, a 57-year-old Caracas resident, said the new bills would just make it hard to get change after making a payment.
"It's not logical," he said.
Parra contributed to this report from Madrid, Spain. Associated Press writers Kate de Pury in Moscow and Juan Pablo Arraez in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.