As Venezuela burns, a divided region seeks solutions


Cancún (Mexico) (AFP)

Ministers from the Organization of American States met Monday to seek elusive solutions on the crisis in Venezuela, as the death toll from weeks of clashes at anti-government protests rose to 74.

The OAS has emerged as the international community's best hope for action on Venezuela, where new clashes broke out Monday as protesters marked the 80th day in their current campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

But hope for action is slim even within the OAS, a 34-country group whose members will have to bridge their own divisions to address the standoff.

Even if they do, the regional group -- which Venezuela is in the process of quitting -- has little in the way of hard power.

Venezuela has descended into running street battles between anti-government protesters and Maduro's security forces and supporters since April 1, when the authorities moved to strip the powers of the opposition-majority legislature.

Those scenes played out again Monday, as riot police and soldiers used tear gas and water cannon to block demonstrators from marching on central Caracas.

A 17-year-old boy was shot in the chest and killed in Altamira, on the capital's east side, while six others were wounded by bullets, officials said.

The crisis has the rest of Latin America increasingly worried.

Meeting in the Mexican resort of Cancun, OAS foreign ministers are seeking to reconcile two opposing proposals on Venezuela and send them to the regional group's general assembly, which is holding its annual meeting here this week.

On one side are Venezuela's leftist allies in the region and Caribbean countries that for years received discount crude exports from the oil giant.

The Caribbean countries are proposing a resolution that calls for an "internal" solution to the crisis, based on "dialogue" between the government and opposition.

On the opposite side are the United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru and Panama, which want to create a "contact group" on Venezuela -- a sort of task force of countries that would seek to make Maduro's government respect the OAS's democratic norms.

Pummeled by the plunge in oil prices since mid-2014, Venezuela is in the grip of an economic and political crisis that is causing desperate shortages of food, medicine and other basic essentials.

Maduro's opponents accuse him of clinging to power by repressing opponents, eradicating checks and balances, and seeking to write a new constitution.

The leftist president says the crisis is a US-backed conspiracy.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez angrily withdrew from the OAS ministers' meeting as the two sides sought to forge a third proposal that she said was sure to fail.

"Venezuela recognizes nothing produced by this organization," she said.

Under the compromise proposal, the OAS would call on Maduro to halt the constitution-drafting assembly he has convened, guarantee human rights and hold talks with the opposition, mediated by a group of countries.

- No end in sight -

Near-daily anti-government protests erupted in Venezuela on April 1, in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling stripping the powers of the opposition-majority legislature.

Since then, at least 73 people have been killed in clashes.

More than 1,000 people have been injured so far, prosecutors say, and more than 3,000 arrested, according to rights group Forum Penal.

The OAS crisis talks are the latest in a series of foreign ministers' meetings that caused Maduro to announce Venezuela's withdrawal from the regional group in April -- a process that will take two years.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Fitzpatrick, who is in Cancun for the OAS meetings, called the situation in Venezuela a "hyper-crisis," and issued a stern warning to Maduro's government.

"Should the Maduro regime decide to ignore the national and international outrage and appeals, and instead proceed to do away with the constitution in a patently illegal and dangerous manner... the regime will bear a special responsibility for whatever befalls Venezuela," he told journalists.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, a vocal Maduro critic, warned there would be no immediate solution.

"This process won't finish today, even if we come away with a very strong resolution," he said.

"The issue of Venezuela will continue, because the crisis in Venezuela isn't going to end today, either."