GENEVA - Sanctions should be stepped up against Venezuela's leaders and oil sector in response to the country's repressive political climate, the head of the Organization of American States (OAS) said on Tuesday.
Under President Nicolas Maduro, "dictatorship has become more tyrannical" and the suffering of its 30 million people has increased amid dire shortages of food and medicine, said Luis Almagro.
"Sanctions have to become harsher, this is the way to move forward. Those against dictatorship should unite," the secretary general of the 34-member OAS told a Geneva human rights forum organized by UN Watch, a non-governmental organization.
"We must apply sanctions, harsher ones. We must starve the regime financially."
Sanctions have so far focused on individual members of Maduro's government and a ban on buying new Venezuelan debt.
Restrictions on Venezuela's all-important oil industry would represent an escalation of financial pressure on the OPEC member state.
Almagro, asked by Reuters to elaborate on his remarks on sanctions, later told reporters: "The sanctions should be not only personal sanctions, but sanctions also against the regime itself. And that is to affect the conditions with which the regime operates.
"That makes it necessary of course to target oil production, it makes it necessary to target the family of the dictators, it makes it necessary to target money-laundering."
Maduro will stand for re-election in April in a ballot opposition leaders plan to boycott. Critics say it is a farce, with Maduro's main rivals barred from standing and a compliant election body bound to favor the ruling socialists. Maduro denies the system is undemocratic.
Maduro's government calls the OAS a pawn of U.S. policy and dismisses Almagro, a former Uruguayan foreign minister once friendly with Venezuela's socialists, as a turncoat working for Washington.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said two weeks ago at the end of a five-nation tour of Latin America that the United States was closer to deciding whether to impose sanctions on Venezuelan oil.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay.