- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Secretary of State John F. Kerry threw his weight Tuesday behind international calls for a referendum that could force Venezuelan leftist President Nicolas Maduro from power, just as the South American nation faces a deepening crisis, rife with food shortages and political unrest.

Mr. Maduro’s government should “honor its own constitutional mechanisms, including a fair and timely recall referendum,” Mr. Kerry told regional leaders gathered in the Dominican Republic for the annual general assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS).

With Mr. Maduro, a protege of the late anti-U.S. populist Hugo Chavez, having jailed several key opposition leaders over the past two years, Mr. Kerry’s remarks on Tuesday came as opposition parties in Caracas are pushing a recall drive to out the president by a popular referendum.

“Venezuelans have the right to use constitutional mechanisms to express their will,” said Mr. Kerry, who also called on the Maduro government to “release political prisoners, to respect freedom of expression and assembly [and] to alleviate shortages of food and medicine.”

Mr. Maduro has fought the recall effort and sparred publicly with OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro, who has pushed a separate drive to suspend Caracas from the hemispheric alliance. The comments Tuesday by Mr. Kerry marked the harshest language used to date by the Obama administration toward Caracas.

Still, in a potential bid to lower the temperature, Mr. Kerry later in the day announced plans for high-level talks with the socialist government in Caracas, even while continuing to support the referendum drive.

The Reuters news agency reported that Undersecretary of State Thomas A. Shannon, a veteran diplomat in the region, would head the U.S. delegation in the talks.

Washington has a tangled history with Venezuela since Chavez first took power. The George W. Bush administration was accused of condoning a 2002 failed coup, and Venezuela had been a key ally of Cuba before President Obama launched his detente with the island in 2014.

An economic crisis and a major loss for the government in legislative elections late last year has undermined support for Mr. Maduro, whose government has also been hurt by falling oil and commodity prices.

Mr. Maduro has already blamed his nation’s problems on an “economic war” mounted by Washington and its allies. His government has also gone so far as to suggest that Mr. Almagro, a former Uruguayan foreign minister, is a CIA operative, an accusation the OAS secretary-general bristled at in a letter to Mr. Maduro last month.

Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue policy group in Washington, said the U.S. “has to walk a fine line” on Venezuela.

“It supports OAS Secretary General Almagro and wants other governments to back him and ramp up the pressure on the Venezuelan government to adhere to basic human rights and democratic practices,” Mr. Shifter said in an email. “But Washington realizes that going beyond reaffirming basic principles and detailing what needs to be done in Venezuela would be deemed interventionist.

“In the face of Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis,” he said, Mr. Kerry “struck the right balance.”

But the secretary of state still drew a blistering response from Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, who portrayed him as a bully ahead of a private meeting the two were slated to hold on Tuesday afternoon.

“I feel the ruler of the world has spoken, and who on top of it all has the audacity to voice his opinion on other countries,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

The Associated Press noted that she also went on to accuse Mr. Almagro of interfering in her country’s internal affairs in his bid to oust Mr. Maduro from office, alleging that the OAS chief was “on the payroll of Washington.”

Venezuela’s troubles are not on the agenda of the OAS assembly, but Mr. Almagro has invoked an article in the Inter-American Democratic Charter to open a formal discussion about the situation by the organization later this month.

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