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article imageUS launches talks with crisis-hit Venezuela

By Leila Macor with Valentina Oropeza in Caracas (AFP)     Jun 14, 2016 in World

The United States and Venezuela said Tuesday they would launch new high-level talks as the South American country struggles with a growing humanitarian crisis.

With the Venezuelan opposition pushing to remove President Nicolas Maduro, the United States urged "constructive" steps to ease the situation in the volatile oil-exporting state.

The two nations have had tense relations for years, with Venezuela's socialist leaders accusing Washington of trying to topple them.

But the countries' top foreign envoys sat down together Tuesday on the sidelines of a regional gathering.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said he discussed the opposition's drive for a recall referendum during the meeting with Venezuela's Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez.

Maduro himself said later in televised comments that he agreed to "a new stage of dialogue" between his government and US officials.

The two countries withdrew their respective ambassadors in 2010 but Maduro said he was "ready to appoint ambassadors and regularize relations."

Kerry told reporters he would send top State Department envoy Thomas Shannon to Venezuela "as soon as possible."

Shannon has met with officials in Venezuela before but this time the talks would have a "larger agenda," Kerry said.

After drawing charges of US meddling from Rodriguez earlier in the day, Kerry insisted: "We're not taking sides. We're just supporting the constitutional process" in Venezuela.

He met with Rodriguez in the Dominican Republic after the general assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS).

- Recall referendum -

Oil-rich Venezuela has slid into crisis as crude prices have crashed over the past two years. Citizens are suffering shortages of basic goods.

The hardship has fueled protests, violence and looting.

The opposition also accuses the authorities of jailing dozens of activists for political reasons, a charge the government denies.

Residents of the "Catia" low income neighborhood rally to protest for the lack of food  in...
Residents of the "Catia" low income neighborhood rally to protest for the lack of food, in Caracas on June 14, 2016
Juan Barreto, AFP

Maduro has accused the United States and the Washington-based OAS of conspiring against his government.

The regional organization's general secretary Luis Almagro has called a meeting on June 23 to discuss the Venezuelan government's democratic record -- a possible step towards its suspension from the group.

Almagro accuses Maduro of trampling on the political opposition.

"We're not pushing for a suspension," Kerry said, however.

"I think it's more constructive to have the dialogue than to isolate at this point."

Kerry earlier drew a sharp response from Rodriguez when he called for Venezuela to allow "a fair and timely recall referendum that is part of that constitutional process."

He also called on Maduro's government "to release political prisoners, to respect freedom of expression and assembly, (and) alleviate shortages of food and medicine."

Rodriguez fired back: "Venezuela's internal matters will be settled by Venezuelans," in unscheduled comments ahead of her meeting with Kerry.

- US 'intervention' -

Rodriguez also repeated her government's allegation that the United States was plotting a military intervention in Venezuela.

US Secretary of State John Kerry  is seen with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez during th...
US Secretary of State John Kerry, is seen with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez during the General Assembly of the Organization of American States, June 14, 2016, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Evan Vucci, POOL/AFP

She referred to comments made last year by the then-head of the US military's Southern Command, John Kelly.

In a television interview, Kelly said the US military would react if asked to in the event of a grave humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

Maduro blames Venezuela's economic crisis on an "economic war" waged by the Venezuelan business elite.

He accuses them of plotting with the United States to destabilize the country.

The OAS permanent council is scheduled to discuss the crisis on June 23 in Washington.

"On Venezuela, the US has to walk a fine line," Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a US-based think tank, told AFP.

"In the face of Venezuela's humanitarian crisis, Kerry couldn't remain silent, but he also couldn't go too far and get out in front of other regional governments."

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