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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro shakes hands with U.S. diplomat Thomas Shannon during their meeting at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela June 22, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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By Andrew Cawthorne and Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) - Veteran U.S. diplomat Tom Shannon met with Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday to re-start talks between the ideologically-opposed governments amid a punishing economic crisis in the South American OPEC nation.

Shannon, who led a similar rapprochement last year that stalled over the jailing of protest leader Leopoldo Lopez, also met with opposition figures on his visit to Caracas.

During 17 years of socialist rule under Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has replaced Cuba as Washington's principle irritant in the Americas.

The United States is backing an opposition push to hold a referendum this year that could see Maduro ousted. However, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez agreed last week to re-start talks.

Shannon and Maduro, 53, met after lunch in the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, but there was no immediate word on the content of their talks.

On Tuesday, Shannon met with opposition leaders including Henrique Capriles, the two-time presidential candidate who lost to both Chavez and Maduro and is now spearheading the push for a referendum.

Maduro may be hoping the meeting eases international pressure on him, analysts and diplomats said, while Washington likely calculates a rapprochement undermines Venezuela's constant blame on "imperialist" foes for the nation's problems.

"Kerry indicated last week that the U.S. wants to see a recall referendum this year, and bilateral talks will help to offset what would otherwise be fodder for Maduro to declare that the U.S. is trying to overthrow his regime," the Eurasia consultancy group said.

"PHOTO OPS"

Shannon, a former U.S. ambassador to Brazil and current Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs who speaks Spanish and Portuguese, was likely to press for the release of jailed opponents including Lopez. The Venezuelan politician was sentenced to nearly 14 years for instigating 2014 anti-Maduro protests that led to violence killing 43 people across both sides.

Rights groups say the trial was a farce.

After meeting Shannon on Tuesday, Capriles said Maduro was seeking to use dialogue to buy himself time due to his inability to solve Venezuela's worsening economic crisis.

"Someone who has not eaten for five days cannot wait for dialogue," he said, referring to widespread food shortages around the nation of 30 million people. "We're not here for photo ops. Venezuela doesn't have time for that."

Since Chavez took office in 1999, Venezuela and the United States have gone through cycles of diplomatic fighting followed by generally short-lived eras of reconciliation.

They have been without ambassadors since 2010.

Through it all, Venezuela has kept oil flowing north uninterrupted, and is the third biggest U.S. supplier after Saudi Arabia and Canada, according to the latest U.S. data.

(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, additional reporting by Carlos Rawlins; Editing by Andrew Hay)

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