Venezuelan government officials have held secret talks with opposition leaders in the Dominican Republic. The meetings aim to pave the way for a resolution to a political standoff in the South American country.
Protesters in Caracas demand a referendum to remove President Maduro amid a deepening economic crisis
Jesus Torrealba, the head of the umbrella opposition alliance, confirmed Saturday that the meetings took place, but said the officials did not sit down face-to-face. Instead, messages were shuffled between the two camps by former presidents of Spain, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
"There is no 'opposition-government' meeting in the Dominican Republic. Representatives of the coalition are attending a meeting with (the ex-presidents)," Torrealba tweeted.
Venezuela is in the midst of a deepening economic crisis marked by hyperinflation and severe shortages of basic items like food, electricity and medicine. Popular support for President Nicolas Madura has sunk below 30 percent in the polls, and the opposition has launched a bid for a referendum on whether he should be recalled.
The president is also locked in a struggle with congress, which has been controlled by the opposition since elections in December. International agencies including the United Nations have warned of a humanitarian crisis in the country of 30 million people. They have urged the two sides to hold urgent talks.
Maduro insists his government is the victim of an "economic war" backed by Washington and other foreign governments.
Calls for 'national dialogue'
According to pan-Latin American broadcaster Telesur, the Venezuelan government delegation included Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez and two senior officials in the ruling Socialist Party. The opposition was represented by three lawmakers.
The three days of meetings follow an announcement by ex-presidents Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain and Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic that they would seek to initiate a "national dialogue" in Venezuela.
Opposition leaders have been reluctant to participate in such talks, fearing the process could sideline their plan to hold a referendum.
Following criticism that details about the meetings hadn't been made public, opposition leader Torrealba said via Twitter that representatives in the Dominican Republic had stressed several "indispensable" demands for any dialogue: allowing the recall referendum to proceed, the release of political prisoners, solving the economic crisis and for the government to "respect" the constitution and the opposition-controlled congress.
nm/jm (AP, Reuters)