WASHINGTON - Top diplomats from across the Western Hemisphere held an urgent meeting Wednesday aimed at ending Venezuela's worsening democratic crisis, but struggled to reach consensus about whether foreign nations had any right to intervene in Venezuela's internal affairs.
At an emotional gathering of the Organization of American States, foreign ministers broadly shared one hope: that Venezuela, which has vowed to leave the regional group in protest of its potential intervention, would reconsider. Beyond that, there were few points of agreement.
"We're talking about people dying, dying,'' said Brazil's Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes. He argued that democracy was "not a luxury'' and asked plaintively: "What can we do collectively to make a difference, to reach out to the Venezuelan citizens, to rescue their fundamental freedoms?''
But left-leaning nations that have been sympathetic to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro insisted the OAS had no business interfering in the crisis, in which protests against Maduro's government have left at least 60 people dead. Nicaraguan diplomat Luis Alvarado said his country condemned and rejected the attempt to "subvert the rights'' of a sovereign country.
"We demand the end of the political lynching,'' Alvarado said through a translator. "Nothing can be imposed on the great and sovereign nation of Venezuela. It is absolutely essential that these actions cease.''
His comments were echoed by Bolivia's Foreign Minister Fernando Huanacuni Mamani, who accused the OAS of choosing "aggression'' and "confrontation.''
Protesters have flooded the streets of Venezuela for months — including on Wednesday — demanding new elections and faulting Maduro's leadership for the country's triple-digit inflation, surging crime rates, and dire shortages of food and medicine. The opposition accuses Maduro of putting Venezuela on a path toward full-on authoritarianism.
Maduro has vowed to resolve the crisis by forming a special assembly to rewrite the constitution, a proposal protesters have rejected as yet another attempt by Maduro to consolidate power. Maduro's opposition says the process outlined by Maduro for selecting the assembly is designed to skew it in his favor by stacking the assembly with his supporters.
At Wednesday's meeting in Washington, foreign ministers were considering two draft resolutions. Both drafts call for a reduction in violence but differ in their wording on other demands for Maduro to change course. Given the concerns voiced by Nicaragua and others, it was unclear whether the group would manage to find enough common ground to proceed.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the top U.S. diplomat, did not attend the meeting taking place at OAS headquarters just a few blocks from Tillerson's State Department offices. In his stead, he sent Tom Shannon, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, who urged Venezuela to stay in the group and defended its right to try to resolve the crisis.
"We believe there is an international role in the rebuilding of trust among the main political actors in Venezuela as well as the reduction of tensions,'' Shannon said.