As the Organization of American States weighs how to address a political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, the United States on Tuesday said it was seeking the South American country's cooperation rather than its "immediate suspension" from the hemispheric group.
Representatives of the OAS Permanent Council gathered at the organization's Washington headquarters, near the White House, to consider how to deal with Venezuela. Its socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, has jailed political opponents, ignored the results of regional elections and commandeered the judiciary branch as the country has spiraled into poverty and chaos.
OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro released a report this month detailing the violations and urging Venezuela's suspension from OAS unless its government acted quickly to improve conditions there.
In a news briefing Tuesday, a senior official said the U.S. State Department shared Almagro's "concern about the state of democracy in Venezuela." But, the official continued, "we urge Venezuela to participate in a productive discussion on how to resolve the economic and humanitarian crisis in that country. Our objective in this session is not an immediate suspension."
Call for elections
The official said Maduro's administration should respect the Venezuelan constitution, "allow the democratically elected National Assembly to perform its constitutional functions, and must call for elections as soon as possible."
The official also called for "the immediate release of political prisoners in Venezuela," including one of Maduro's chief opponents, Leopoldo Lopez.
The Permanent Council's most extreme corrective measure would be to suspend Venezuela's OAS membership, requiring a two-thirds vote, meaning support of 22 of the body's 34 member states. The measure would trigger monitoring by observers from around the region.
Anticipating a possible OAS vote, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio on Monday said Haiti, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador should be prepared to cast ballots for suspension to protect Venezuela's democracy — and their own U.S. aid.
"We have a very difficult situation in Washington, where massive cuts in foreign aid are under consideration," the Florida Republican said in an interview with the Miami-based El Nuevo Herald. "And it will be very difficult for us to justify assistance to those countries if they, at the end of the day, are countries that do not cooperate in the defense of democracy in the region."
Surprised by positions
The senator told the newspaper he had been surprised that the three countries — dependent on U.S. foreign aid but also benefiting from discounted oil from Venezuela — were undecided about how they might vote. In the interview, Rubio said he thought the U.S. government would support Almagro's proposal.
Last week, 14 OAS member states — including the United States and Brazil — signed a declaration demanding that Venezuela promptly schedule elections, release political prisoners and recognize its constitution's separation of powers, among other measures.
The United States already has imposed sanctions against Venezuela. In 2015, the Obama administration ordered sanctions against seven officials on the ground that they threatened U.S. national security. Last month, the Trump administration imposed sanctions against Venezuela's new vice president, Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of involvement in sending large drug shipments to the United States while serving as Venezuela's interior minister.
Almagro proposed possible suspension for Venezuela in mid-March, accusing its government of violating the standards of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, to which it is a signatory.
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the liberal, Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, sees the OAS leader's mediating strategy as purely political.
"Both the USA and Almagro are playing a very destructive role, because they seek the overthrow of the government rather than dialogue and negotiation, which is really the only way out of this crisis," Weisbrot told VOA. He was speaking early in the day, before the State Department's recommendation for Venezuela to engage in talks with OAS to improve conditions there.
U.S. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, indicated he would encourage suspending Venezuela from the OAS.
"We are talking about a regime that has close contacts with terrorist groups throughout the world, and whose top officials are among the world's largest drug traffickers and, therefore, a danger to the world, to U.S. national security," Diaz-Balart told VOA.
In December, the South American regional economic bloc Mercosur suspended Venezuela for failing to address human rights and trade standards.
Vero Balderas of VOA Spanish contributed to this report.