Venezuela's opposition is engaging in a blitz of diplomacy in the aftermath of last month's abortive uprising, including talks with the government of President Nicolás Maduro. But the opposition's most important international backer - the United States - is skeptical of Maduro's good faith, or that the talks will lead to his removal from office.
The opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, sent emissaries to Oslo last week for talks brokered by the Norwegian government with two senior Maduro loyalists, including Jorge Rodríguez, the government's communications minister.
Four people familiar with the talks said the sides did not meet directly - they exchanged points of view and proposals through diplomatic intermediaries.
A senior Trump administration official described the government's proposals at the meeting as vague and lacking in key details, particularly on the opposition's demand that Maduro step down, and on the makeup of any transitional government.
The Norwegians approached the Americans "a couple of weeks ago" to broach talks, the official said. The administration remains deeply skeptical that Maduro would be willing to leave power, and have told the Norwegians they need to press for demonstrations of good faith, including the release of political prisoners.
"Is it an exercise to buy time? To distract? Or are they serious?" the official asked. He said the Oslo talks were "inherently flawed" in part because they did not include good-faith gestures by Maduro's government.
"You can't have honest negotiations when some [from the opposition-controlled National Assembly] are in prison," he said.
Another senior administration official said the core demand of both the Venezuelan opposition and the United States has not changed: "Maduro must go."
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door policymaking.
On planning for a post-Maduro government, they stressed the need to keep institutions intact. They cited the collapse of Iraq in 2003 after the United States disbanded the army and other institutions.
Any "transition presided over by Maduro is a phony," the second official said, but outreach to other senior government officials and guarantees that they can stay in their current positions will be key to success.
Talks between the government and the opposition could continue in the days and weeks ahead.
Publicly, at least, the sides remain far apart.
Maduro this week floated a proposal that the opposition sees as a nonstarter: early elections for the National Assembly, now headed by Guaidó, controlled by the opposition and recognized internationally as the nation's only democratic institution. Maduro's government stripped the assembly of its power in 2017, and opposition critics say a new election to would serve only to strengthen Maduro's grip on power.
"Venezuela has a humanitarian crisis with no precedent," Guaidó said at a National Assembly session on Tuesday. "What is the regime's response? To make fun of the people by talking about parliamentary elections, while our proposal has been clear: end of usurpation; transitional government; and free elections. Truly free elections. That's what they fear . . . Because there is no doubt that a free election would open the doors for change in Venezuela."
Guaidó streamed the session on social media, because national guards surrounding the legislative palace blocked the press from going in.
The international contact group - including the European Union, Britain, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, Sweden, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ecuador - dispatched a delegation to Caracas last week to speak with both sides. There were no specific signs of progress. One person briefed on the talks said the meeting with Maduro did not go well, and that he told them any new presidential elections before the end of his five-year term were "unthinkable."
"It seems as if Maduro is still stuck on the idea that he is constitutional and legitimate, and that hasn't changed, and until there is a change of tone, there won't be a breakthrough," the person said.
Luis Vicente León, director of the Datanálisis polling agency in Caracas, called the fact that both sides are agreeing to explore talks a significant step toward a possible negotiated solution to the crisis. He said the first meetings were part of a "longer process."
"It means both sides are starting to feel exhausted," he said. The government is isolated, divided and barely able to govern, he said, while the opposition has realized that its strategy to oust Maduro by wooing the military and his loyalists has thus far fallen short.
The international mediation efforts come weeks after the failed uprising led by Guaidó and his mentor, Leopoldo López.
In the days since, the opposition scrambled to stay united while the startled international community strengthened calls for a negotiated solution. Even the Lima Group, a regional collective of nations that largely backs Guaidó's agenda, announced its intention to approach both the contact group and Cuba, which backs Maduro.
Both Maduro and the opposition, meanwhile, are sending mixed signals. Maduro has pledged to ease tensions and agreed to talk to the countries hoping to mediate a deal. Yet his government has also imprisoned the National Assembly's vice president, Edgar Zambrano, and charged 10 lawmakers with treason in connection with the April 30 plot.
"I will focus all my efforts for Venezuela, to sooner rather than later, reach an agreement with the Venezuelan opposition," Maduro said in a televised speech on Monday.
The opposition has become more vocal on the option of a foreign military intervention to oust Maduro. Guaidó told The Washington Post this month that he would take a hypothetical offer of U.S. military assistance to the National Assembly. And on Monday, his representative to the United States, Carlos Vecchio, met with the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense to "evaluate joint mechanisms of cooperation and strategic planning to advance in a solution," Vecchio said on Twitter. He said he was "satisfied with the progress made."
Maduro claimed victory last year in elections widely viewed as fraudulent. Guaidó declared himself interim president in January, and has been recognized as Venezuela's rightful leader by the United States and more than 50 other countries.
As time passes, both sides have much to lose. Maduro has shown himself unable to halt Venezuela's economic free fall into the unprecedented humanitarian crisis that has sparked a mass exodus from the oil-rich nation. As conditions deteriorate, he risks more internal divisions, especially in the military. Signs of those rifts have already been made evident.
Most recently, his ambassador to Italy, Julián Isaías Rodríguez, resigned Tuesday, saying he leaves his post "without regrets and without money. My wife just sold jewelry her ex-husband gave her to maintain us in front of the U.S. blockade." He said the "gringos" sanctioned him and he doesn't have a bank account.
Guaidó risks losing domestic support as his efforts to push out Maduro have faltered. His approval rating slipped five percentage points from February to April, according to León's polling firm. The fall is not dramatic, but could worsen if Venezuelans fail to see him achieving tangible results, León said.
During last week's negotiations in Oslo, Guaidó said they were only part of his team's larger strategy to oust Maduro.
"We repeat it: we are working in all options to end the dictatorship and are advancing in each of them: mediation of countries that approach a solution in Venezuela, international cooperation, and encouraging constitutional backing from our Armed Forces," he tweeted.
Hawks in the Trump administration have pushed for military options in Venezuela, even as President Donald Trump has privately indicated little appetite for an intervention, particularly heading into the 2020 election cycle.
One senior administration official acknowledged that "nobody wants to do it, certainly the [Department of Defense] doesn't."
Nevertheless, the official added, "people who think there is no military option are wrong. It's not our policy, but who knows what will happen tomorrow?"
This article was written by Anthony Faiola and Karen DeYoung, reporters for The Washington Post.