CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition leaders and top government officials have held talks in the Dominican Republic to lay the groundwork for a potential dialogue to defuse a political standoff and a deepening economic crisis, local media reported on Saturday.
The OPEC nation is suffering a severe recession due to low oil prices and a collapsing socialist economic model. President Nicolas Maduro is locked in a standoff with Congress after the opposition won a sweeping legislative majority last year.
A government delegation including Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez has for three days met with representatives of opposition parties including Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular, according to opposition-linked newspaper El Nacional. Government-backed newspaper Ciudad Caracas described the encounter as an "exploratory meeting for the start of dialogue," adding that the meeting included ex-leaders of Spain, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
Rodriguez retweeted state-run broadcaster Telesur saying the government had met with the opposition. A Foreign Ministry official declined to comment. The head of Venezuela's MUD opposition coalition tweeted "There is no 'opposition-government' meeting in the Dominican. Representatives of the coalition are attending a meeting with (the ex-presidents)."
International agencies including the United Nations and the Group of Seven industrial powers known as the G7 have pressed the two sides to hold talks amid chronic shortages of food and medicine and electricity rationing.
But opposition leaders, who are seeking a referendum to recall President Maduro, have been deeply skeptical of initiating such talks. Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who is leading the recall push, said in an interview this week that dialogue would simply allow the government to buy time and that the only way to resolve the crisis was through a vote.
A dialogue effort in 2014 brought the two sides together amid months of violent anti-government street protests that left more than 40 people dead. Both sides agree that the talks did not produce any substantive agreements. Opposition leaders accuse the National Election Council of stalling their effort to recall Maduro, whose popularity in March dropped to 27 percent according to local pollster Datanalisis.
They also say the ruling Socialist Party has used a pro-government Supreme Court to shoot down nearly every law passed by Congress since the opposition won a two-thirds majority of seats in December. Maduro insists his government is the victim of an "economic war" led by business leaders with the backing of Washington.
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Gareth Jones)