OAS chief says Venezuela should be suspended if no elections held

Ramon SAHMKOW
Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro (pictured) is the most outspoken international critic of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro

The head of the Organization of American States called on members to suspend crisis-hit Venezuela's membership unless the leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro quickly holds credible elections.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro called on Venezuela "as soon as possible" to hold "free, just and transparent" elections that can be observed by international monitors.

If not, "it would be the right time to suspend Venezuela from OAS activities in accordance with Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter," Almagro said in a 75-page letter to the group's Permanent Council.

Venezuela has been rocked by protests as it struggles to emerge from a deep crisis under Maduro, who was elected with a razor-thin majority in 2013.

The leftist regime -- which Maduro inherited from the late Hugo Chavez, who came to power in 1999 -- has systematically thwarted efforts by an emboldened opposition to hold a recall referendum.

Venezuela's economic plight is largely due to falling prices for its oil exports, contributing to food shortages and economic disarray.

Maduro however says the crisis is a US-backed capitalist conspiracy, and claims the opposition is working on their behalf. Several opposition leaders have been jailed, while others have been harassed or forced into exile.

- 'Torture ... drug trafficking' -

Almagro said diplomatic efforts to broker government-opposition talks "have not resulted in any progress."

Venezuelans have "lost even more faith in their government and in the democratic process," said Almagro, a former Uruguayan foreign minister.

He said the Venezuelan government "violates the rights of its nationals with impunity," holds political prisoners just for showing dissent, and engages in "torture, theft, corruption (and) drug trafficking."

Almagro demanded "concrete results" from the 34-member Permanent Council to "restore democracy" in Venezuela. Anything less would make the organization an "accomplice" with the Venezuelan government.

"The voice of the Venezuelan people has been silenced and jailed, and corruption and drug trafficking has spread across the country," the letter read.

In years past leftist governments in Brazil, Argentina and Peru were reluctant to criticize Venezuela. With new, more conservative governments these countries are now stepping up their criticism.

Almagro's letter is an updated version of a report he presented to the Permanent Council in June 2016. There was plenty of debate over that report, but no agreement on what to do.

- 'Sad evildoer' -

In Caracas, the Venezuelan foreign ministry reacted by claiming that Almagro's goal was to encourage foreign intervention.

"Almagro, a known enemy of the people of Venezuela, has forged false assumptions against the republic with the sole objective of encouraging international intervention... heightening the economic war," the foreign ministry said.

The statement claims that Almagro's actions are guided "by his hatred towards Venezuela" and his alleged support for the "pro-coup, extremist and anti-democratic" Venezuelan opposition.

It then dismissed the OAS head as a "sad evildoer."

Venezuelan presidential elections are scheduled for December 2018, while a vote to elect state governors, originally set for late 2016, was postponed to an undetermined date this year.

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