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Mar 14, 10:26 PM EDT

OAS head urges bloc suspend Venezuela over elections


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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The head of the Organization of American States wants regional governments to suspend Venezuela from the Washington-based group unless general elections are held soon to break a political impasse that he said Tuesday is destroying the country's democracy.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro made the request in a 75-page report on Venezuela's political crisis, in which he accused President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government of systematically violating human rights and standards of democracy enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, to which Venezuela is a signatory.

Maduro's government, which has long accused Almagro of doing the bidding of the U.S. government, said the OAS leader was overstepping his authority in an effort to pave the way for an "international intervention" in Venezuela. Almargo "is guided only by the hatred he professes toward Venezuela and his complicity with the coup-mongering, extremist and anti-democratic Venezuelan opposition," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Almagro asked the OAS's 34 member states to intervene in Venezuela's crisis almost a year ago after Maduro's government disavowed a landslide loss to the opposition in legislative election and then suspended a constitutionally allowed recall campaign seeking to force him from office before the 2018 election.

But regional governments, many of them ideologically aligned with Maduro's leftist administration or recipients of subsidized Venezuelan oil shipments, voted against intervention and instead threw their weight behind an attempt at dialogue between his government and the opposition.

Those talks, which were sponsored by the Vatican and enjoyed the support of the Obama administration, broke down after little progress on key opposition demands, including freedom for dozens of jailed activists and a commitment to hold gubernatorial elections that were supposed to have taken place last year.

"The repeated attempts at dialogue have failed and the citizens of Venezuela have lost even more faith in their government and the democratic process," Almagro wrote in his report. "The absence of dialogue is the first sign of the failure of the political system, because democracy can't exist when voices aren't heard or have been silenced."

Whether there is enough support to suspend Venezuela is unclear.

A suspension requires the support of two-thirds of the OAS members. The vote last year to open proceedings against Venezuela's government for violating the Inter-American Democratic Charter fell three votes short of the 23 required to be adopted, with many poor Caribbean nations who receive Venezuelan oil siding with Maduro.

But since then a center-right government has won elections in Haiti and a conservative, anti-Maduro businessman is ahead in polls to become Ecuador's president in next month's election. Regional governments have also taken a tougher stance, with the Mercosur trade bloc led by Argentina and Brazil voting in December to suspend Venezuela.

U.S. President Donald Trump has also shown a greater willingness than Obama to confront Venezuela, as evidenced by his decision last month to slap drug sanctions on Maduro's vice president and his Oval Office meeting with the wife of jailed activist Leopoldo Lopez.

OAS members have kicked out only two nations before. Communist Cuba was expelled in 1962 and Honduras was suspended briefly following a 2009 military coup. The ban of Cuba, a close ally of Maduro, was lifted in 2009 but President Raul Castro's government has rejected rejoining the hemispheric group.

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Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo reported this story in Washington and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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