Venezuelan candidate Gonzalez touts return of exiles, releasing political prisoners

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas

By Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) -Venezuelan opposition candidate Edmundo Gonzalez said on Wednesday he is committed to carrying out a transition that will allow exiled people to return to the country and political prisoners to be freed.

Gonzalez was named on Friday by the Unitary Platform opposition coalition as its candidate in the July 28 presidential election after primary winner Maria Corina Machado was banned from office and her alternate was unable to register.

The 74-year-old former diplomat will appear on the ballot in three opposition party slots, while President Nicolas Maduro, who has been in power for more than a decade, will appear for 13 different parties.

"We are committed to carrying out a transition where we guarantee the freedom of political prisoners, the return of those exiled and all Venezuelans who have left and wish to return," Gonzalez said in a video posted to social media.

More than 7 million people have left Venezuela in recent years, with most of them migrating to neighboring countries in Latin America.

Though Maduro's government agreed to a prisoner swap deal with the U.S. in December, freeing dozens of Venezuelans as well as some Americans, opposition members and activists recently have been detained for what supporters say are unfounded reasons.

"It is time to march together for the recovery of our democracy, it is time to put aside our differences and work together to reach electoral victory," Gonzalez said in his first lengthy remarks since being named a presidential candidate.

Gonzalez, who served as a diplomat in Algeria and Argentina, said he had not expected to be a candidate, but that action needed to be taken on poverty, inflation, health and education and that patchy provision of water and electricity is hurting economic growth.

In a radio interview later on Wednesday, Gonzalez said if he were to win the election in July, there could be negotiations with the government to ensure a normal transition of power.

He also said he believed other countries in the region were encouraging Maduro to respect the outcome of the vote.

"I can't confirm, but I have the impression that governments like Colombia's let Maduro know about the concern there is for election results to be respected," Gonzalez said.

A spokesperson for the office of Colombian President Gustavo Petro said he could not immediately confirm whether the two men had spoken recently.

Maduro, a socialist, has presided over a deep economic crisis marked by shortages of basic goods, sky-high inflation and a crackdown on political dissent.

The U.S reimposed oil sanctions on Venezuela on April 17, accusing Maduro of reneging on deals reached with the opposition to ensure free and fair elections.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Paul Simao)