US resumes talks with Venezuela, pushes for fair July 28 election

By Vivian Sequera and Matt Spetalnick

CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Senior U.S. and Venezuelan officials restarted talks on Wednesday, with Washington saying it urged President Nicolas Maduro's government to ensure that elections scheduled for July 28 will be "competitive and inclusive."

Venezuela's chief negotiator Jorge Rodriguez said the two sides agreed during the virtual meeting to work on improving fraught relations and to maintain "constructive and respectful" communication.

The U.S. has expressed concern about whether Maduro - who is seeking a third term in office - will make good on his promises to hold a free and fair presidential election. Western governments dismissed his 2018 re-election as a sham.

The Socialist president 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 in January, 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 on Monday he had accepted a U.S. proposal to resume direct talks. The last known meeting between senior U.S. officials and Maduro's representatives took place in Mexico in mid-April.

"We discussed a wide range of issues and continued to urge competitive and inclusive elections on July 28 in Venezuela," a White House National Security Council spokesperson said of Wednesday's meeting.

Rodriguez said that while continued talks were intended to "gain confidence," Venezuela had expressed its "rejection of the misrepresentations that spokespersons of the U.S. government have published about this dialogue." He did not elaborate.

The new round of talks "must be limited to what was agreed upon in Qatar," Rodriguez said on social media platform X.

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. Details of those agreements have not been fully disclosed, although a prisoner swap took place in December following the talks.

With many among Venezuela's electorate angry about declining living standards and a stagnant minimum wage, some analysts say that Maduro will struggle to overcome what polls indicate is a roughly 20-point deficit to Gonzalez.

Still, there remain widespread doubts about whether the vote will be credible. Opposition activists have regularly denounced what they call oppressive tactics by Maduro, including imprisoning opposition members, and the government in May revoked an invitation to European Union election observers.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)