WASHINGTON: The United States and a group of 13 nations across the Americas on Thursday called on Venezuela's government to hold elections and immediately free political prisoners, setting up a potential diplomatic showdown with President Nicolas Maduro's socialist administration.
The statement comes as the head of the Organization of American States is pushing to expel Maduro's government from the Washington-based group for breaking the country's democratic order.
The 14 nations, including Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina, said they see expulsion as a last resort and instead urged dialogue to resolve Venezuela's entrenched economic and political problems.
The U.S. State Department called for Venezuela to hold elections "as soon as possible."
Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. is not pushing for Venezuela's expulsion from the OAS, but "calls for the immediate release of political prisoners in Venezuela," including Leopoldo Lopez.
"President Maduro should permit the democratically elected national assembly to perform its constitutional functions and should hold elections as soon as possible," Toner said.
Earlier this month, the head of the OAS said he wanted regional governments to suspend Venezuela from the group unless general elections are held soon.
OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro made the request in a 75-page report on Venezuela's political crisis, in which he accused Maduro's 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 disavowed a landslide loss to the opposition in legislative elections in 2015, and then suspended a recall campaign seeking to force him from office before the 2018 election.
Maduro has long accused Almagro of doing the bidding of the U.S. government. At the time, Venezuela's foreign ministry said the OAS leader was overstepping his authority in an effort to pave the way for an "international intervention" in Venezuela.
On Thursday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said on her Twitter account that Toner's comments "reveal who is pushing the interventionist agenda against Venezuela in the OAS."
Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Videgaray said his country and a group of other nations in the region would propose a plan shortly "to constructively help, in the spirit of respect for the sovereignty and the people of Venezuela, to reach a solution and restore first, a dialogue and second, full democracy in the sister nation of Venezuela."
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said Thursday's declaration "is a clear measure of both the political shift in South America toward more conservative governments and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Venezuela. In the face of such a severe humanitarian crisis it became more and more difficult for many governments to remain silent."
"It is doubtful the government will respond positively, and when that happens it is not clear what the next step will be," he said.