NOEL KING, HOST:
Venezuela's opposition has been trying for months to oust the authoritarian president, Nicolas Maduro. But Maduro isn't budging. So now the two sides are meeting in Norway in an effort to resolve this protracted political crisis. Reporter John Otis has the story.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Angel Gallardo sells vegetables in the western city of Maracaibo. But his store is mostly empty. Gasoline shortages keep many shoppers home. The city is also plagued by blackouts, which mean that refrigerators often don't work.
ANGEL GALLARDO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Gallardo says shoppers buy only what they need for their next meal, like a few tomatoes and onions. Gallardo supports opposition leader Juan Guaido, who's recognized by more than 50 countries, including the U.S., as Venezuela's legitimate head of state. But over the past five months, efforts by Guaido to force President Maduro from power have failed. The stalemate prompted both sides to sit down earlier this month for exploratory talks in Norway.
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NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: In a TV appearance Saturday, Maduro confirmed that there will be a second round of meetings in Oslo this week. The news came as a surprise because opposition leaders have long dismissed negotiations. They claim Maduro used previous talks to stall for time while making no concessions.
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JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: At a recent news conference, Guaido declared, we are not going to take part in false negotiations. But at this point, the opposition has few options, says pollster and political analyst Luis Vicente Leon.
LUIS VICENTE LEON: If you have the power to kick Maduro out, you're right; you don't need to negotiate. The problem is that you're saying that with Maduro in power, which means that you have not the force and the power to do it. Why Maduro's still there? Because you cannot kick him out.
OTIS: Meanwhile, analysts say several factors could prompt Maduro to cut a deal. These include U.S. sanctions that are squeezing Venezuela's vital oil income. Maduro also fears that the military, which props up his regime, could turn against him, says Geoff Ramsey of the Washington Office on Latin America, a policy and human rights group.
GEOFF RAMSEY: The set of political and economic interests that is currently sustaining Maduro in power, I think, would be very happy to throw him under the bus and replace him with someone that has much more international legitimacy.
OTIS: The opposition insists that negotiations must focus on holding a free and fair presidential election. But there is a long way to go. During the initial talks, the two sides spoke separately with a Norwegian mediator rather than to each other. Some within the opposition fear that Maduro is once again pulling their leg.
ALEXANDER PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: But here in Maracaibo, as life gets harder by the day, residents like Alexander Perez are desperate for a breakthrough. Perez is a high school principal, but his earnings have been devastated by hyperinflation.
PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Perez says he used to spend more per day on bus fare than he would earn at his school. He now walks to work.
PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "Negotiations are the best solution," Perez says. "That way, we will avoid bloodshed and even more pain than we're already suffering."
John Otis, NPR News, Maracaibo, Venezuela.
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