U.S. lawmakers continued to criticize Latin American democracies on Friday for not taking more action to end government repression in Venezuela and for holding a meeting behind closed doors.
The Organization of American States (OAS) Permanent Council, composed of representatives from all 35 countries in the Americas, convened in a closed meeting on Thursday afternoon in Washington, D.C., to discuss the Venezuelan crisis. The meeting, which was scheduled to continue on Friday, was requested by Panama as businesses in the country reportedly expressed concerns about $2 billion in debt owed to them by the Venezuelan government.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro reacted angrily to Panama’s request by breaking off diplomatic and economic ties to the country, expelling the Panamanian ambassador and three other diplomats, and attributing the OAS meeting to "moves by the United States government in accord with a lackey government of a right-wing president."
"OAS, out of here! For now and forever!" Maduro said in a fiery speech this week.
Maduro’s government has been widely condemned for an almost month-long crackdown on protesters that has now resulted in 20 deaths. A group of United Nations independent experts sought a response from the Venezuelan government on Thursday to allegations that security forces arbitrarily detained and tortured opposition leaders, protesters, and journalists.
"The reconciliatory dialogue that is so deeply needed in Venezuela is not going to take place if political leaders, students, media groups, and journalists are harassed and intimidated by the authorities," the UN experts said in a statement.
OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza decried the "political crisis" and violence in Venezuela in prepared remarks but stressed that "OAS is not here to interfere in the internal affairs of its member states." Critics say the OAS has failed to fulfill its mission of promoting and defending democracy and human rights in the region.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) denounced what she called the silence of the OAS and its members in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon.
"This organization, which was founded to defend liberty and democracy, is absent when democracy is actually under threat," she said. "To add insult to injury, it is holding its deliberations where it will treat the Maduro regime with kid gloves under a cloud of secrecy."
"The session should be open and transparent, like the freedom they purport to promote," she added. "History will remember the names of those who stayed silent in the face of oppression, especially this shameful lot who claimed to be the defenders of liberty."
Ros-Lehtinen circulated a letter among lawmakers this week that calls on President Barack Obama to impose targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials involved in human rights abuses, including U.S. visa bans, asset freezes, and prohibitions on financial transactions.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, previously urged the OAS to demand an independent investigation into alleged human rights violations in a statement to the Free Beacon.
U.S. Ambassador to the OAS Carmen Lomellin said in prepared remarks that the U.S. government was "severely disturbed" by Venezuela’s restrictions on freedom of expression and the press. She also expressed support for a third-party mediator to assist "genuine dialogue" in the country. However, that prospect appeared unlikely with Maduro’s refusal to work with the OAS.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced on Thursday that members of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), viewed as a pro-Venezuela alternative to the OAS, would meet next week to discuss the unrest in the country.
"The truth is that the Venezuelan government is the victim, Nicolas Maduro is a humane person who would be incapable of repressing his own people," Correa said during a televised interview.
Maduro and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have long used their countries’ immense oil and gas reserves to expand the influence of its socialist ALBA bloc, which includes authoritarian governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Declines in overall production and exports have posed new economic challenges to Venezuela in recent years.
Protesters blame the Maduro administration’s strict currency controls and overall economic mismanagement for rampant inflation and shortages of basic goods. Crime rates have also soared.
Maduro has dismissed the protesters as fascists and "violent vandals" covertly financed by U.S. officials.
Opposition leaders have refused to attend a so-called "peace conference" held by Maduro this week as leading activist Leopoldo López remains behind bars at a military facility.