The leader of the Western Hemisphere's largest diplomatic body said Wednesday he backs targeted sanctions against high-ranking Venezuelan officials responsible for the political and economic turmoil gripping the South American nation.
But Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, cautioned a congressional oversight panel against sweeping economic penalties that could worsen the suffering of Venezuelan citizens. He described Venezuela as the most corrupt country on that continent.
"The only action of the government we see these days is repression," Almagro told the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and transnational crime. "The scenarios that we see are pretty ugly for Venezuela."
Almagro, as part of a bleak assessment of Venezuela, also questioned whether sanctions would succeed in having their desired effect, which is to force President Nicolas Maduro and his supporters to make drastic changes.
Sanctions helped push South Africa to abolish apartheid in the early 1990s, he said, but the country was committed to ending racial segregation. He cited Cuba as an example of country that's resisted external pressure to embrace democracy.
"There is no way to push a dictatorship down from abroad," he said. "So sanctions may work or may not work. It depends on the internal pressure in the country."
President Donald Trump threatened earlier this week to take unspecified "economic actions" if Maduro presses ahead with a July 30 vote on a constituent assembly to retool the constitution. Maduro's socialist supporters want the assembly to grant him more power over the few institutions still outside the control of his ruling party.
Trump administration officials also told reporters Tuesday that they were considering a wide range of sanctions on Venezuela, including cuts in oil imports. Trump has imposed travel bans and has frozen the assets of high-ranking officials in recent weeks, but refrained from broad sanctions against Venezuela that could deepen its economic crisis.
The oil-rich nation was once one of Latin America's most prosperous, but it has been plunged into chaos as petroleum prices plummet, nationalized farms and factories halt production, and corruption runs rampant.
Venezuela's opposition said that more than 7.5 million people voted against the constitutional assembly at unofficial ballot boxes set up nationwide and in expatriate communities Sunday.
Almagro said that more than 100 people have been killed and thousands more have been injured in Venezuela since a wave of protests began in April. Of those killed, more than 30 were under the age of 21, he said. More than 450 investigations into human rights violations have been opened, according to Almagro, and there are 444 political prisoners in Venezuela.
But he said the reluctance of other countries to "act in defense of democracy has allowed the situation to deteriorate incrementally, but consistently, to the point where today it has become a full-blown humanitarian and security crisis."