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Venezuela’s Leader Suspends Talks With Opposition

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela has suspended mediated talks with his country’s opposition movement, to protest the Trump administration’s latest sanctions. The move threatens what many analysts and diplomats consider to be the country’s best chance of ending a crippling political and economic crisis.

Accusing the administration of “grave and brutal aggression,” Mr. Maduro recalled his envoys late Wednesday night, hours before they were to board a plane to rejoin opposition negotiators and Norwegian mediators on the Caribbean island of Barbados. On Monday, President Trump signed an executive order freezing all Venezuelan state assets in the United States, and his national security adviser, John R. Bolton, threatened to impose sanctions on Mr. Maduro’s remaining trade partners.

Venezuela has been in an ongoing recession since Mr. Maduro took office in 2013 and initially doubled down on his predecessor’s disastrous policies of currency and price controls and expropriations. As his popularity tanked, he has increasingly relied on repression and electoral machinations to stay in power.

The United States has progressively cut off Mr. Maduro’s access to international finance since January, when it recognized the head of Venezuela’s opposition, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s legitimate leader. The latest executive order is intended to scare off Mr. Maduro’s remaining trading partners in Russia and Asia from doing business in Venezuela.

It was unclear whether Mr. Maduro would rejoin the talks at a later date. Both sides have benefited from appearing to seek a negotiated resolution to the crisis, but the latest American sanctions have emboldened hardline opponents of the talks within Mr. Maduro’s administration.

“The Barbados dialogue is a dialogue with extremists,” Mr. Maduro said on state television Wednesday after suspending the talks. “Many ask me why you’re talking with those who want to kill you.”

Following the suspension, Venezuela’s hardline ruling party chief, Diosdado Cabello, threatened to unleash a new round of political persecution against the state’s perceived enemies. “War is war,” he said late Wednesday.

But some analysts and people close to Mr. Maduro’s negotiating team said they saw the suspension as tactical posturing by a government that has few other means of responding to the steady tightening of financial screws by the United States.

“Leaving the negotiating table for good means destroying any chance of loosening the sanctions,” said Eugenio Martínez, an electoral analyst at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. He added that abandoning the talks also risked provoking the opposition’s European allies, which up to now have taken a conciliatory stance, into joining the American sanctions.

A continuing presence in Barbados would also allow Mr. Maduro to remain in control of the main negotiations over the country’s future by neutralizing rival factions in the ruling party, said Mr. Martínez. “If Maduro is not at the table, he risks someone negotiating for him,” he said.

The opposition signaled on Thursday that it would be willing to continue the talks, and the chief mediator, Dag Nylander of Norway, said he was working to set a new meeting date.

An opposition envoy, Stalin González, tweeted Thursday from Barbados, “We will continue working all avenues to seek the end of the crisis.”

The opposition’s main demand is free and fair elections in the near future, and all polls show its candidates would win in a landslide. The government is demanding the relaxation of sanctions before making any political concessions.

The talks have allowed the increasingly dictatorial Maduro administration to claim it is seeking a peaceful solution. They have also provided the best chance of ousting Mr. Maduro after mass protests and a military uprising earlier this year failed to do so.

As negotiations drag on, Venezuela’s economy continues to plummet. The country’s gross domestic product is set to contract 35 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The number of Venezuelan refugees is projected to double by the end of 2020, to eight million people, or a quarter of the country’s precrisis population.


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