CARACAS: President Nicolas Maduro has predicted a new foreign-led effort to mediate Venezuela's political crisis would produce a deal soon, but the opposition said on Saturday it would not accept another time-wasting "show".
Following months of anti-Maduro protests earlier this year that led to at least 125 deaths, both sides sent delegations to meet the Dominican Republic's president this week for a possible start to a negotiated solution.
"After weeks of conversations, we are close to an agreement, of political co-existence, of peace and sovereignty," Maduro said in a speech late on Friday. "We're very near."
But the opposition, which accuses Maduro of creating a dictatorship and ruining a once-prosperous oil economy, insisted the talks in Santo Domingo were only "exploratory" and would not proceed without firm guarantees of democratic change.
They want a date for the next presidential election, due by the end of 2018, with guarantees it will be free and fair, plus freedom for hundreds of jailed activists, a foreign humanitarian aid corridor, and respect for the opposition-led congress.
"They can't mess us around like last year, when they promised heaven and earth, but nothing happened," said Julio Borges, the leader of congress which has been overridden by a pro-Maduro legislative superbody called a Constituent Assembly.
"If we don't have iron-clad guarantees ... that everything is leading to democratic change ... we won't take a step more," he told reporters on Saturday, recalling failed 2016 Vatican-led talks. "We want to avoid a repeat of last year's show."
Maduro says the Constituent Assembly has brought peace to the South American nation of 30 million. But many major foreign powers do not recognise the body given its origins in a controversial election that the opposition boycotted.
After more than four months of often violent protests, which also led to thousands of injuries and arrests, Maduro says a U.S.-fanned coup attempt has been defeated. But the strife has seen international opinion harden against him.
Dominican leader Danilo Medina said Mexico, Chile, Bolivia and Nicaragua would join a new round of talks on Sept. 27, with two other countries to be defined. The Democratic Unity coalition said on Saturday one of those was Paraguay.
While the government is eager to show the world it is entering a dialogue, opposition leaders face scepticism from their supporters, many of whom view a potential negotiation as a betrayal of dead protesters and legitimisation of an autocrat.
(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by David Gregorio)