- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The top official of the Organization of American States on Tuesday called for an emergency meeting to consider the threat to democracy in Venezuela, escalating a feud with the government of leftist President Nicolas Maduro and opening the door to a suspension from the hemispheric body.

In an unusually aggressive step, OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro released a 133-page report highly critical of Mr. Maduro’s government, based on an “alteration of constitutional order and how it gravely affects the democratic order” in Venezuela.

In response, Mr. Maduro told supporters in Caracas that he was the target of “attacks of the world oligarchy right and imperialism.”

Tuesday’s move exacerbates an open feud between Mr. Almagro, a Uruguayan lawyer and diplomat, and Mr. Maduro, a protege of the late anti-U.S. populist President Hugo Chavez. Mr. Almagro recently called the Venezuelan president a “petty dictator” after Mr. Maduro accused him of working with the opposition and the U.S. to undermine his government.

The opposition-led assembly, citing government efforts to suppress street protests and detain leading critics, has formally asked Mr. Almagro to suspend the country from the regional body over what the opposition calls an “institutional and humanitarian crisis.”

Mr. Almagro is asking the organization’s permanent council to assess the situation in the coming weeks. If two-thirds of the 34 OAS member states agree that the Venezuelan leadership has undermined democracy, the opposition’s request will be granted.

Jorge Rodriguez, who served as vice president under Chavez, said it’s “completely illegal” for the OAS chief to make that decision. In statements to the Spanish-language network Telesur, Mr. Rodriguez called Mr. Almagro “an errand boy” becoming “a dictator.”

Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised Mr. Almagro’s move.

The secretary-general “is ensuring that the OAS carry out its most fundamental duty …,” Mr. Engel said in a statement. “One thing is certain: The best way to support the Venezuelan people is through multilateral means. That’s why I urge all member states to join Secretary-General Almagro in supporting today’s action.”

But the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based think tank that has been critical of U.S. and OAS efforts against Caracas, warned Mr. Almagro that his move would only raise tensions in the region.

“Far from helping Venezuela move toward a peaceful and cooperative resolution of these challenges, your intercessions over the past year have served to exacerbate the conflict,” the council’s letter said. “We urge you to avoid further partisanship and play a more constructive and impartial role in promoting peace and dialogue.”

Ernesto Samper, secretary-general of the Union of South American Nations, announced Tuesday that Venezuelan government authorities and opposition officials will meet next week, potentially face to face.

Critics of the Maduro government applauded the move.

“Finally,” said Carlos Marquez, director of the Venezuelan American Leadership Council, an activist group that has been critical of Mr. Maduro. “I’m very happy it’s out on the table. Right now, it doesn’t mean anything officially for the government, but it’s a great first step.”

Mr. Almagro is the first head of the OAS to invoke the charter against a member state against the will of its government. Meanwhile, the opposition is pushing for a recall referendum hoping to remove Mr. Maduro from power this year.

Mr. Almagro has publicly endorsed the proposed referendum.

The last time an OAS member state was suspended was in 2009 when Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was removed from power.

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