Washington (AFP) - The political crisis in Venezuela dominated the opening exchanges of the annual meeting of the Organization of American States on Monday, with Washington pushing for it to be suspended.
President Nicolas Maduro's government has already declared it will leave the forum, but US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged members to register a protest against last month's elections.
Maduro was returned to power in a vote that was largely boycotted by the opposition and denounced as an unconstitutional assault on democracy by Washington and most of Venezuela's neighbors.
Nevertheless, Maduro's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza was present as the OAS meeting opened to defend his government and to hear Pompeo reiterate the US call for Venezuela's suspension.
This, he said, "would show that the OAS backs up its words with action and it sends a powerful signal to the Maduro regime, only real elections will allow your government to be included in the family of nations.
Pompeo accused Maduro of "dismantling democracy" and urged more Latin American states to join the US in imposing increased economic and diplomatic sanctions on his administration.
"We call on all OAS nations to do this today -- regarding Venezuela -- and in the future wherever necessary for the good of the region and the world," he said, to applause from some delegates.
Arreaza protested that the situation in Venezuela was a domestic one, placed on the agenda of an international meeting "in a spurious manner" -- but other ministers disagreed.
"We must have a continent free of dictatorships," OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, a stern critic of Maduro, said as he inaugurated the 48th annual meeting of the organization in Washington.
In order to formally suspend Venezuela, the OAS would have to convene an extraordinary general assembly.
But members will have a chance to chastise Caracas when they vote on a resolution that would refuse to recognize the result of the May election and, according to US officials, pave the way for further action.