The Norwegian attempt to mediate comes amid tensions that exploded in street violence when the opposition called in vain for a military uprising on April 30. Details about the closely guarded process, including whether direct talks between envoys from opposing camps were on the agenda, were scarce. Norway, in a foreign ministry statement, confirmed that it had preliminary contacts with Venezuelan envoys and that it was ready to continue supporting efforts for a peaceful solution.
The initiative coincides with other outreach efforts: Opposition leader Juan Guaidó said in Caracas that he planned to meet a delegation from a mostly European group of nations, and Venezuelan television showed Maduro meeting separately with the same delegation from the International Contact Group.
Also, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland met in Havana with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, who tweeted that Cuba was prepared to contribute to dialogue on Venezuela. The myriad diplomatic efforts reflect a recognition in Venezuela that neither side has been able to prevail in the struggle for power, leaving the country in a state of political paralysis after years of hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.
"You don't negotiate because you want to. You negotiate because you have to," said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the nongovernmental Washington Office on Latin America. "It's become pretty clear neither has been able to impose their dominant strategy on the other," he said.
Norway has a long, successful history of foreign mediation: The country hosted peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in September 1993, and the Philippines government and Maoist rebels in 2011. The government also brokered a 2002 cease-fire between Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebel negotiators. Seven years ago, negotiators from the Colombian government and left-wing FARC rebels held their first direct talks in a decade in Norway.
Guaidó confirmed that envoys were in Norway, but warned that the opposition won't enter into any "false negotiation." He said any talks must lead to the end of President Nicolás Maduro's government, its replacement by a transitional administration and free and fair elections.
Maduro disputes opposition claims that his reelection last year was illegitimate and says U.S. sanctions imposed on Venezuela to try to oust him should be lifted. Maduro noted his information minister, Jorge Rodríguez, had carried out "the first part" of an important mission in Europe. He said he expected Rodríguez back in Venezuela by Friday and that more details will be revealed.
Participation in the mediation effort is a reversal for the opposition, which has accused Maduro of using negotiations between 2016 and 2018 to play for time. Maduro, in turn, alleges the opposition tried to seize power by force. U.S. officials have said they are focusing on diplomatic and economic measures to force out Maduro. However, Guaidó said his Washington envoy would meet with the head of the U.S. Southern Command on Monday.
The opposition also says Cuba has propped up Maduro with military and intelligence help. Cuba has denied this. Marcelino Medina, Cuba's First Vice Minister of Foreign Relations, was in Norway on Tuesday and Wednesday as part of what his office called a tour of Scandinavian countries.
Meanwhile, the International Contact Group, comprising eight European nations, the European Union and four Latin American countries, has been working on the Venezuela problem, favoring free and fair elections as soon as possible. The group formed after Guaidó, the head of Venezuela's National Assembly, declared himself interim president in January in a direct challenge to Maduro, who says his government champions the socialist principles of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez.
The opposition, backed by more than 50 nations, says Venezuela's dire economic state is the result of years of corruption and mismanagement. Maduro, whose allies include Russia, blames the country's problems on more recent U.S. pressure.
In Washington, four demonstrators who had been protesting inside the Venezuelan Embassy for weeks were arrested Thursday. The protesters consider Maduro to be Venezuela's leader, but the U.S. recognized Guaidó's envoy as ambassador.
Maduro denounced the arrests and said his government would show respect for international law by reinforcing security around the empty U.S. Embassy in Caracas. The last American diplomats left Venezuela in March.
Also Thursday, Guaidó said the opposition, aided by sympathetic security forces, had freed a former police chief who was under government-imposed house arrest as part of a 30-year prison term linked to an attempted coup in 2002. The government has not commented on the whereabouts of Iván Simonovis, described by activists as one of Venezuela's most prominent political prisoners.
Associated Press journalists Scott Smith in Caracas, Michael Weissenstein in Havana, Mark Lewis in Stavanger, Norway, and Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington, contributed to this report.