Washington (AFP) - A group of 15 countries called on Venezuela Thursday to act "without delay" to clear the way for an election over whether to recall President Nicolas Maduro from office as a way out of a worsening crisis.
The countries, all members of the Organization of American States, issued the joint statement after the head of Venezuela's election authority laid out a schedule this week that appears likely to push any recall election into 2017.
The timeline is crucial because if the unpopular Maduro is voted out in a recall election after January 10, he would simply yield power to his handpicked vice president.
If the recall is held this year and Maduro loses, the constitution calls for new elections in the leftist-ruled South American country.
The opposition has been pressing for a recall this year, but the National Electoral Council has slow-rolled a complex petition process that involves gathering and validating millions of signatures before the elections can go ahead.
"We call on the Venezuelan authorities to guarantee the exercise of the constitutional rights of the Venezuelan people and that the remaining steps for the realization of the presidential recall referendum be pursued clearly, concretely and without delay, and thus contribute to the quick and effective resolution of the current political, economic and social difficulties in the country," the joint statement said.
Signing it were Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States and Uruguay.
Maduro allies Ecuador and Nicaragua were not on the list.
Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez said he was surprised to learn of the joint statement, saying his counterparts were working "behind Venezuela's back" in what he called an "undiplomatic" act.
"There is an obsession with attacking and interfering with Venezuela's internal affairs," he said, warning that such meddling, if it happened with all countries at the OAS, would be "opening a very dangerous Pandora's box."
Tensions have mounted in Venezuela amid a deep economic crisis, with inflation expected to hit 700 percent this year and widespread shortages of food and medicine.
The country has the world's largest oil reserves, but plunging oil prices have intensified a downward spiral marked by episodes of looting and rampant crime.
Meanwhile, Maduro and the opposition-controlled National Assembly have been locked in a paralyzing power struggle.
The OAS members signing Thursday's statement urged the government and the opposition "to hold as soon as possible a frank and effective dialogue, directly or with the support of facilitators" to identify long-lasting solutions to the crisis.