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Venezuela sets April 22 for election after talks break down

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By SCOTT SMITH
Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Venezuelan officials moved swiftly Wednesday to call an early presidential election, acting hours after a breakdown in talks between the government and opposition over how to conduct the vote.

The election will be held April 22, said Tibisay Lucena, head of the government-controlled National Electoral Council.

Venezuela traditionally has held its presidential elections late in the year, and the United States along with several countries in Europe and Latin America have condemned the rush to hold the vote so early, saying it undercuts political negotiations and is unfair to the opposition.

Socialist President Nicolas Maduro has already launched his campaign for a second term and currently stands as the only candidate as Venezuela's continues to sink deeper into an economic crisis of high inflation and food shortages.

Talks on resolving Venezuela's political divide fell apart earlier in the day in the Dominican Republic, with the two sides accusing one another of grandstanding and negotiating in bad faith.

Dominican President Danilo Medina, one of the international mediators, said the talks had entered an "indefinite recess" after Venezuelan government negotiators returned home Tuesday night after signing a "draft agreement" that was unacceptable to the opposition.

The head of the opposition's delegation, Julio Borges, urged the government to reconsider its stance while reiterating that he won't sign an agreement that puts Venezuela's democracy at risk. He called on Venezuela's government to accept the opposition's counter proposal.

"If the government wasn't afraid of a free election it would have no choice but to sign our document, which is based on Venezuela's laws," Borges said, vowing to make the counter proposal public.

Before hundreds of cheering supporters in Caracas, Maduro signed a draft of the "agreement" that the opposition coalition rejected. But he added that the dialogue remains alive.

In the absence of a deal, Venezuela's rancorous fight for power could become a lot uglier.

The Constituent Assembly, which is controlled by the government but is considered illegitimate by the U.S. and many foreign governments, had called last month for the election to take place by the end of April.

It remains to be seen whether the opposition - or large parts of it - will boycott the contest, hoping that many countries won't recognize the results. The ballot could also prompt the U.S. to follow through on a threat to cut off oil shipments from Venezuela, which is an OPEC nation.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was wrapping up a tour of the region, said Wednesday en route to Jamaica that he was more favorable now to the idea of oil sanctions because the situation in Venezuela has steadily worsened.

"We're going to take it to him and let him make the decision," Tillerson said, referring to President Donald Trump.

Four-digit inflation and widespread shortages of everything from cash to food has collapsed support for Maduro's socialist administration.

But he is betting he can still win re-election after having sidelined several prominent opponents and crushed anti-government protests last year that left more than 130 people dead.

The government also controls the National Electoral Council, whose credibility to oversee the contest has been questioned by the opposition following two elections last year that were marred by allegations of fraud and vote-rigging.

Luis Emilio Rondon, the only member of the electoral commission who has sided with the opposition, said after the announcement that the rushed presidential date jeopardizes the possibility of a free and fair election.

"Less time, less guarantees," he said.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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