Venezuelan leader Juan Guaido said Friday that the opposition's demand for presidential elections is not negotiable, slowing mediation efforts by Norway aimed at resolving Venezuela's political crisis.
"A new meeting isn't planned at the moment, we can get what we've proposed on the agenda," Guaido said at an event in the central city of Valencia, dismissing earlier comments from Russia's foreign ministry that a third round of exploratory talks with representatives of Nicolas Maduro would take place next week.
"Nobody who is straight in the head would sit across from a dictator thinking he is negotiating in good faith," he added.
Guaido's biting comments, coming as mediators from Norway were in Caracas trying to prevent the talks from derailing, highlight the huge obstacles to negotiating a peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela, which has endured economic and political turmoil for years.
Guaido, who heads the opposition-controlled congress, revived a flagging opposition movement in January by declaring himself Venezuela's rightful leader, quickly drawing recognition from the United States and more than 50 nations that say Maduro's re-election last year was illegitimate.
But Maduro, backed by the military as well as Cuba and Russia, has held on to power in the face of U.S. oil sanctions that are adding to misery in a nation hit hard by hyperinflation and widespread fuel, food and power shortages.
Norway has hosted two rounds of exploratory talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition in an attempt to break the ongoing stalemate.
The opposition, mindful of the collapse of past dialogue attempts that only served to strengthen the government's hand, has insisted the starting point for negotiations be a willingness by Maduro to hold presidential elections within a reasonable time frame. Maduro has balked at that call, blaming the opposition for boycotting last year's presidential ballot and insisting instead on elections to revamp the opposition-controlled legislature.
"As long as both sides are hurting and don't see a way out, there's a possibility negotiations can succeed," said James Dobbins, a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation who served as special U.S. envoy to several crisis hotspots including Haiti and Afghanistan. "It's really the only hope left."
The setback in Norway's mediation effort comes amid a frenzy of regional diplomacy tied to the Venezuelan crisis.
Talks with Cuba
Also on Friday, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez traveled to Toronto for talks with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, hours after he met Venezuelan socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello in Cuba.
"Cuba has a different position and that's one reason why it's important for us to talk to Cuba" about a solution to the Venezuelan crisis, Freeland said after meeting Rodriguez. She said "free and fair elections" is the way forward for Venezuela. Canada has joined the Trump administration in pressuring Maduro to resign.
Cabello had arrived in Cuba on Thursday. One of his first meetings was with Rodriguez, who said on Twitter they "discussed themes of international interest."
Maduro's alleged crimes
Also Friday, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, urging him to set up a unit to investigate and prosecute alleged crimes by Maduro and his associates.
"The long list of Maduro's crimes includes the illegal mining and trafficking of minerals, transnational drug trafficking, and theft of substantial sums of money from the Venezuelan government and hiding it in offshore bank accounts worldwide," Rubio said.
Maduro has denied any illegal activity and says the U.S. wants to overthrow him as a way to exploit Venezuela's vast oil resources.
In another development, the Trump administration said it will recognize the validity of Venezuelan passports for five years beyond their printed expiration dates. The State Department announced that the passports will be considered valid for visa applications and entry into the United States in recognition of a decision by Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly.
Getting a new passport or an extension is expensive and lengthy for many Venezuelans. Many of the more than 4 million Venezuelans who fled the country in recent years had left without a valid passport.