If there's a negotiated settlement to Venezuela's protracted crisis, it'll likely be reached with the help of a self-effacing, tight-lipped Scandinavian diplomat with a fondness for distance running.
Dag Nylander is leading the exploratory talks between representatives of Nicolas Maduro and his opponents whose second round wrapped up this week in Norway.
While there's no date for talks to resume and little is known what was discussed behind closed doors — even the meeting location outside Oslo is a well-guarded secret — the fact that the two sides continue to meet after spending the past five months trying to politically annihilate one another is being taken as a hopeful sign.
Key to the undertaking is Nylander, a Latin America specialist who between 2012 and 2016 served as one of two facilitators in negotiations aimed at ending Colombia's long armed conflict.
During those grueling talks, Nylander, 49, earned a reputation from the government and rebels alike as an honest broker, careful not to impose his will but who could act decisively when called upon. Just as importantly, he developed many relationships — with communist Cuba, the United Nations and even Maduro himself — that could come handy in overcoming the seemingly insurmountable odds to a deal that avoids further hardships in Venezuela.
In a 2015 interview with Spain's El Espanol online newspaper he said a successful mediation requires ]the will to enter into the process keeping a very low profile, not looking for any publicity either for the process or for Norway." True to that outlook, Nylander declined to comment about the Venezuela talks.
Breaking the deadlock will be a lot harder this time. While Colombia's rebels had largely lost hope of victory after a half-century of conflict and were increasingly isolated politically, Maduro and his foes have both dug in. Maduro controls all institutions of state while Guaido has convinced more than 50 nations to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader.
"Dag is the ideal interlocutor," said Sergio Jaramillo, who as Colombia's peace commissioner was one of the architects of the peace deal ending a half-century of guerrilla fighting. "But even he can't produce miracles. It'll have to be the Venezuelans themselves who sort out their own problems."
Nylander, a lawyer by training, oversees the peace and reconciliation effort at Norway's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For several decades, ever since the 1993 Oslo Accord between Israel and Palestinian negotiators, Norway has played a leading role trying to end some of the world's most bitter conflicts through discrete mediation and serious funding of peacemaking efforts on the ground.
In the case of Venezuela, Nylander and diplomats from Norway's embassy in Bogota, Colombia, began traveling to Caracas and meeting with key figures almost as soon as Colombia's peace deal was inked at the end of 2016. Last year, the Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution, which works with and receives funding from Norway's foreign ministry, flew in a U.S. mediation expert to try to launch dialogue between the two sides.
Then in March, the same group sponsored a meeting of opposition and government leaders on Venezuela's Margarita Island, according to someone familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had not been previously disclosed.
Those secret talks were key in breaking an impasse on delivery of humanitarian aid: Shortly after the meeting, the Red Cross was granted permission from both sides to roll out a major relief campaign that effectively acknowledged a humanitarian crisis Maduro had long denied but also scuttled Guaido's attempts to use the delivery of U.S.-supplied aid to weaken his rival.
"The only way forward is dialogue," Maduro said Wednesday night celebrating what he sees as a victory for his longstanding call for dialogue. "We want a peace deal."
The opposition has been less enthusiastic about the talks, fearing it will be burned again as it was in previous dialogue attempts. Since 2017, an array of potential mediators — including Spain's former president and even Pope Francis — have tried to bring the two sides together with little to show for their efforts. The collapse of talks in the Dominican Republic last year paved the way for Maduro's easy re-election in a race boycotted by his opponents and in which several leaders were exiled or banned from running.
Reflecting that pessimistic outlook, Guaido sent a lower-level delegation to Oslo, and called for more protests this week as his envoys were still returning from Europe.
But some believe the diplomatic gambit might just work.
Although Guaido enjoys wide international support, he is struggling to maintain his coalition together as the crisis drags on and has so far failed to break the military's loyalty to Maduro despite leading a small barracks rebellion last month.
Meanwhile Maduro is under intense pressure from U.S. sanctions that squeeze his government's revenues as he confronts a deepening social crisis marked by hyperinflation and shortages of food, fuel and electricity. Members of his inner circle face the threat of U.S. prosecution on drug or corruption charges.
"Almost by definition, a negotiated solution needs to have a win-win aspect," said Bernard Aronson, who was the Obama administration's special envoy to the Colombia peace talks. "Even if Maduro is ready to throw in a towel, you have to find a formula that for him and his inner circle to feel safe. Nobody is going to give up power just to go to jail."
Aronson said that Nylander was careful to check his ego at the door and not get in the way during the Colombian negotiations. But he played a critical role saving the talks when a guerrilla ambush killed 11 soldiers in 2015 and triggered the government decision to resume an aerial bombing campaign. Aronson said he and Nylander worked closely with other facilitators — Cuba, Venezuela and Chile — to find a face-saving formula to bring both sides back to the table.
Jaramillo said Nylander's discipline and professionalism impressed negotiators. To maintain a level head amid the stressful talks, he would go running early in the morning several miles (kilometers) around the manicured, mansion-strewn lawns where the delegations lived.
As the Venezuelan mediation effort moves forward, a major wild card is the U.S.
While the Trump administration is not a party to the talks, it has a virtual veto on any deal so long as crippling oil sanctions remain in place. One of the topics on a six-point agenda discussed in Norway included sanctions relief, according to a person familiar with the talks who requested anonymity because they aren't authorized to discuss the negotiations.
While the Trump administration publicly has distanced itself from any deal-making, insisting that the only things open to negotiation are the terms of Maduro's exit, analysts say U.S. officials are likely to become more flexible if a potential deal begins to take shape.
One important stumbling block: whether Maduro, whom the U.S. considers a "dictator," would be allowed on any ballot for an election to end the standoff.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a major driver of U.S. policy on Venezuela, said in an interview with The Associated Press prior to the latest round of talks that the U.S. backs Guaido's team and "we're going to be supportive of whatever they decide." But as for allowing Maduro on the ballot, "My opinion is that it's probably a non-starter."
Trump's special representative for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, has been in frequent contact with Nylander. He also recently met in Washington with one of the opposition negotiators most amenable to a dignified exit for the socialists, former electoral council member Vicente Diaz, and has privately told U.S. lawmakers that Norway will play a vital role in settling the dispute, according to two people familiar with the discussions and who requested anonymity because they aren't authorized to discuss the matter.
If the talks do gain momentum, Nylander can also help bring along the United Nations, which might be called upon to monitor eventual elections. Following the Colombian peace talks, Nylander spent more than a year shuttling between New York and Caracas as U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres' special representative on a long-running border controversy between Venezuela and its neighbor Guyana. During that effort he met with Maduro on at least two occasions.
Nylander also has established relations with Cuba, which along with Russia and China is a key Maduro ally and has a big financial and geopolitical stake in keeping an anti-American government in power. Not surprisingly, some in the opposition have taken to social media to criticize Nylander's perceived coziness with the Cubans.
"Dag can put to good use backchannels that were established by the Colombian peace process and that remain open," said Jaramillo. ""But they don't have many cartridges left, so I wouldn't blow this one. It may be one of the last opportunities for a sensible solution."