AFP

The head of the Organization of American States, seeking to help wrest Venezuela out of a deepening crisis that has led to food riots, on Thursday urged support for a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro said the government in Caracas was responsible for the near-collapse of Venezuela’s economy and had resisted offers of humanitarian help to rescue the country from its downward spiral of chaos and violence.

“This crisis is reaching a breaking point,” Almagro said in a report to ambassadors from the 34 countries that make up the regional bloc of nations, including the United States and Canada. “These challenges cannot be blamed on external forces. The situation facing Venezuela today is the direct result of the actions of those currently in power.”

With the world’s largest known reserves of oil, Almagro said, Venezuela should be one of the most prosperous and influential countries in Latin America.

“Instead, it is a state mired in corruption, poverty and violence,” he said.

But while Almagro urged the member states to take actions to back up mediation efforts between the government and the opposition, the OAS did not vote on whether Venezuela has violated the principles in the organization’s Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Almagro’s report is being circulated with the hope that it could prod the “dialogue” being led by a former Spanish prime minister and the ex-presidents of Panama and the Dominican Republic.

Venezuela could be suspended from the OAS, though that prospect looks increasingly remote and was not even mentioned at the meeting of OAS foreign ministers and ambassadors Thursday.

“Dialogue is important,” said Michael Fitzpatrick, the U.S. representative to the OAS. “However, we cannot allow it to be an excuse for inaction. The Venezuelan people cannot afford delays for finding solutions to the problems they face.”

Almagro’s condemnation of Maduro’s government was the centerpiece of a three-hour debate at OAS headquarters in downtown Washington in which Venezuela and its supporters accused Almagro of attempting to overthrow the socialist government. Some of Venezuela’s most ardent allies warned that the OAS itself could emerge weakened from its attempt to influence a country’s internal politics, and they urged the secretary general to resign.

“The abuses and surpassing of authority by the secretary general are my concern,” said Nicaragua’s representative, Denis Ronaldo Moncada Colindres. “He’s trying to overthrow sovereign states represented here. He is an administrative official. He is involving this organization in a coup against Venezuela.”

The crisis in Venezuela has grown more dire by the day, even as Almagro mounted a campaign to declare there had been a “serious alteration to the constitutional order” there. Since taking office last year, Almagro has tried to shift the organization’s focus to human rights and democracy, causing discomfort among some of the members who worry where he might turn his attention next.

“This is a coup that is being carried out in this organization to overcome the legitimate government of Nicolás Maduro,” said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez at the meeting. “How far will we go? What precedents will we set?”

The debate was peppered with references to U.S. interventions in Latin America.

Almagro countered Venezuela and its allies, arguing that the government in Caracas was jeopardizing the welfare of Venezuelans and the founding principles of the OAS.

In his report, Almagro outlined the nightmarish reality of daily life there, particularly outside the capital of Caracas, and the government’s authoritarian responses to squelch dissent and maintain power.

Despite its oil resources, low oil prices and years of government mismanagement have brought the country to the edge of collapse. Supermarkets are being pillaged by starving mobs. Electrical blackouts are scheduled daily. Amid hyperinflation of 720 percent and a currency that has lost 99 percent of its value in the last three years, three in four Venezuelans live in poverty.

Maduro, the hand-picked successor to Hugo Chávez, is increasingly unpopular, but he wields immense institutional power that he is using to block change.

Thousands of Venezuelans have been arrested and detained as “traitors to the homeland” for criticizing the government, and there have been reports of torture. Maduro has packed the nation’s high court with supporters who have overturned laws passed by the opposition-led National Assembly, including nixed declarations that would have brought in emergency food and medical aid. Instead, food distribution has been assigned to Maduro’s political supporters.

Venezuela, Almagro concluded, has suffered “the loss of the moral and ethical purpose of politics.”

“Fundamental freedoms, human rights and democracy do not only exist when it is convenient,” he said. “When there are clear violations, we have an obligation to address them, especially when it is difficult.”