US says it's still open to talks with Venezuela after Maduro announces meeting

Venezuela's Maduro says he accepted proposal to restart direct U.S. talks

By Daphne Psaledakis and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Biden administration remains open to dialogue with the Venezuelan government, U.S. officials said on Tuesday after President Nicolas Maduro said he had agreed to restart direct talks just weeks ahead of a July 28 presidential election in Venezuela.

The officials said the U.S. had previously indicated it welcomed discussions "in good faith" but they stopped short of confirming Maduro’s statement late on Monday that a meeting was now scheduled in coming days.

The Socialist president is seeking a third term in office while Washington has expressed concern about whether he will make good on his promises to hold a free and fair election. Western governments dismissed his 2018 re-election as a sham.

Maduro is now pitted against Edmundo Gonzalez, a veteran ex-diplomat who was named the main opposition candidate after primary winner Maria Corina Machado had a ban on holding office upheld by the Supreme Court, a move condemned by the U.S. at the time.

Machado has since given Gonzalez her backing, and he has built a large lead over Maduro in opinion polls.

The U.S. reimposed oil sanctions on OPEC-member Venezuela in mid-April, accusing Maduro of not fully complying with electoral guarantees he made in deals with the opposition.

Maduro said in a television program that he had accepted Washington's proposal to restart talks with the U.S. "to comply with the agreements signed in Qatar and to re-establish the terms of the dialogue with respect."

Secret negotiations between the U.S. and Venezuela in Qatar late last year helped pave the way to Maduro’s scheduling of elections this month.

"I'm just not going to get into the specifics of our diplomatic engagements beyond just saying that in the context of Venezuela - you've heard us say this before - we of course welcome dialogue in good faith, and we support the Venezuelan people's desire for competitive and inclusive elections on July 28,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said.

“We are clear-eyed that democratic change will not be easy and certainly requires a serious commitment,” Patel told a daily briefing in Washington.

Venezuelan official negotiator and National Assembly President Jorge Rodriguez will participate in the talks, Maduro said, without detailing the specific topics to be discussed.

It was not immediately known whether the meeting would be in person or held virtually. A previous meeting between senior U.S. officials and Maduro's representatives took place in Mexico in mid-April.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas; editing by Mark Heinrich)