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Ex-presidents attempt to mediate Venezuela's political standoff with secret meetings

An opposition members holds a handwritten message that that reads in Spanish; "Venezuela is hungry," during a protest outside the court offices of the Chacao municipality, in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Opposition members held a demonstration to demand authorities hold a recall referendum on cutting short Nicolas Maduro's presidency. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

An opposition members holds a handwritten message that that reads in Spanish; "Venezuela is hungry," during a protest outside the court offices of the Chacao municipality, in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Opposition members held a demonstration to demand authorities hold a recall referendum on cutting short Nicolas Maduro's presidency. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

A group of former presidents has held secret meetings in the Dominican Republic with Venezuelan officials and government opponents in an attempt to mediate the South American nation's political standoff.

The two-day meetings ending Saturday took place under the auspices of the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, and just the fact that they existed represented something of a breakthrough in the deeply polarized nation.

But Jesus Torrealba, executive secretary of the the opposition alliance, was quick to say that no face-to-face encounter took place, and instead the two sides exchanged messages through the ex-presidents of Spain, Dominican Republic and Panama.

And almost as soon as word of the meetings became known the two sides were at each others' throats again taking aim at their respective accounts of what transpired.

The Venezuelan government was represented by Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez and two top officials in the ruling socialist party. Three lawmakers attended for the opposition.

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International pressure is growing on President Nicolas Maduro amid the threat of political upheaval and a rapid collapse of the oil-dependent economy. This week the Group of Seven rich nations joined numerous governments in Latin America, the United Nations and Organization of American States in calling for urgent talks with the opposition.

Venezuela's opposition is pushing for a referendum on whether to recall Maduro amid a severe economic crisis marked by triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine.

Meanwhile, the president blames his opponents and the U.S. for trying to oust him from power through an "economic war."

Underscoring the depth of the economic desperation, 96 metric tons of medicine arrived Saturday by plane from China. The shipment includes fluids and drugs for treating Zika, whose outbreak in Venezuela has been made worse by a health care crisis.

The meetings in the Dominican Republic came a week after former Spanish President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced that with UNASUR's blessing he would seek to initiate a "national dialogue" in Venezuela. He was joined in the effort by former President Martin Torrijos and Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic.

UNASUR Secretary General Ernesto Samper also met this week with Pope Francis — a popular figure in Venezuela praised even by Maduro — in a bid to encourage the Vatican to play a mediating role.

Following criticism that the encounters were held in secret, the opposition said its representatives stressed several "indispensable" demands for any dialogue: allowing the recall referendum to proceed, the release of people it considers political prisoners, solving the economic crisis and for the government to "respect" the constitution and the opposition-controlled congress.

Meanwhile Rodriguez said the initiative was promoted by Maduro to insure peace, respect for the rule of law and defense of Venezuela's sovereignty.

Even indirect contact between the opposition and the government is a rare achievement in Venezuela, where the last time the two sides sat down for formal talks was in 2014 following weeks of anti-government protests in which more than 40 people were killed.

Maduro delivered a constitutionally mandated state of the union address to congress in January, but for the most part government leaders and their opponents prefer to trade insults and accusations of conspiratorial intrigue from afar.

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