OAS discusses Venezuela crisis, Caracas protests

Washington (AFP) - The Organization of American States held a special meeting on the crisis in Venezuela on Tuesday, triggering a furious reaction from the Venezuelan government and its staunchest regional allies.

The meeting is the international community's latest effort to get to grips with an economic and political unraveling in the once-booming oil producer, whose skid to the brink of collapse has the rest of Latin America increasingly worried.

It comes after 14 countries in the OAS, including the United States, urged Venezuela's leftist government last week to release political prisoners and "reestablish democracy" by holding elections.

In a sign that Venezuela is increasingly cornered, a total of 20 countries voted to open Tuesday's special session of the OAS Permanent Council in Washington.

Eleven countries voted against, two abstained and one was absent.

"As members of this organization, we cannot remain indifferent," said Costa Rica's representative, Rogelio Sotela.

Venezuela protested that the organization was interfering in the country's internal affairs, in "flagrant violation of its principles."

Joining in, the leftist governments of Nicaragua and Bolivia stalled the proceedings with nearly an hour of legal objections in support of their ideological ally, whose largesse with its oil wealth long bought it outsize influence in the region.

- Lawmakers lose immunity -

Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves, but has plunged deep into recession since 2014 as low crude prices have laid bare its overwhelming dependence on its chief export.

The country has been hit by devastating shortages of food and medicine, sparking riots, looting and an epidemic of violent crime.

Maduro, who is fighting the opposition's efforts to force him from power, blames the crisis on an "economic war" by US-backed business interests.

His opponents blame the failure of 18 years of socialist "revolution" under the president and his late mentor, Hugo Chavez.

A presidential election is scheduled for December 2018, while gubernatorial polls originally set for last December have been delayed until this year, although no date has been fixed.

Maduro's popularity has nose-dived, but he retains a strong grip on the levers of power.

Electoral authorities have shot down efforts to call a referendum on removing him from office, and the Supreme Court has effectively stripped the opposition-majority legislature of its powers.

In its latest attack, the high court stripped lawmakers of their immunity from prosecution Tuesday.

- Maduro fires back -

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro is pushing for the group to suspend Venezuela if Maduro does not allow elections, calling the country a "dictatorship."

But the OAS Permanent Council did not appear to be ready for such a severe rebuke -- yet.

The 14 signatories to last week's joint declaration said suspending Venezuela from the OAS should only be used as a "last resort."

The US representative, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Michael Fitzpatrick, said the goal of the special session "is not immediate suspension."

"It will consider all the tools available to the OAS to help the people of Venezuela," he said.

"We encourage Venezuela to participate in a productive discussion on ways to solve the economic and humanitarian crisis."

Proposals ranged from periodic evaluations of Venezuela before the Permanent Council to forming a "group of friends" to tackle the crisis.

In Caracas, Maduro threatened to ditch the OAS, saying it was time for a debate on whether Venezuela should remain a member given its "aggression."

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