CANCUN, Mexico (AP) — Foreign ministers from across the Americas gathered in Mexico on Monday with Venezuela's ongoing political crisis foremost on the agenda.
Nearly 70 people have died, hundreds more have been injured and thousands have been detained in months of protests in the South American country, but so far the nations of the Western Hemisphere have been unable to reach consensus on the matter.
Even as diplomats convened in the Caribbean resort city of Cancun, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, to protest against President Nicolas Maduro's government.
National guard troops and riot police fired rubber bullets to try to disperse the crowds. Protesters in Caracas chanted "Who are we? Venezuela! What do we want? Freedom!"
A small knot of protesters also gathered in the rain on a highway outside the Mexican resort complex where the OAS talks are being held, holding signs saying "No more deaths" and "no more hunger."
Protester Pablo Quintero said he is a Venezuelan who had to leave his country "looking for food, looking for safety."
"We are asking for freedom for our political prisoners, and general elections," Quintero said. "Our people are dying from lack of food, lack of medicine."
Monday's gathering in Cancun ahead of the Organization of American States' annual assembly is the latest of a series of high-profile diplomatic meetings to discuss Venezuela's crisis. But U.S. officials downplayed expectations the gathering will produce any immediate results, insisting it was part of an ongoing effort to raise awareness about Maduro's increasing embrace of one-party rule.
"The government's goal now is clear - to remove the remaining authorities of the freely elected national assembly and replace it with a puppet," Michael Fitzpatrick, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters during a conference call from Cancun.
Further dampening expectations of a breakthrough, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided to skip the gathering.
The U.S. and other regional government are demanding the Venezuelan government respect human rights, halt its forceful crackdown on protests, hold timely elections and scrap a bid to rewrite the constitution.
Venezuela has struggled with an imploding economy, rampaging inflation and chronic shortages of food and basic consumer goods, leading to widespread discontent with the Maduro government. The president has accused his political opponents of sabotaging the country through economic warfare and encouraging the protests.
Venezuela's Foreign Minister, Delcy Rodriguez, suggested the talk of suffering in Venezuela was a pretext for U.S. intervention.
"There has been a lot of talk of a humanitarian crisis ... it is another pretext to try to bring about an intervention in Venezuela," Rodriguez said at the start of talks aimed at approving a resolution on the problems in Venezuela.
Rodriguez said talk of censuring the Venezuelan government "is all directed by the United States." She finished by saying she would not recognize any resolution approved by the OAS, a group which Venezuela has said it is leaving.
Last week 23 ex-presidents from Latin America and Spain recommended the Organization of American States adopt a series of measures such as demanding the Venezuelan government respect human rights, halt its forceful crackdown on protests, hold timely elections and scrap a bid to rewrite the constitution.
Earlier Monday in Caracas, groups of government supporters and opponents exchanged shoves and blows outside the offices of Venezuela's attorney general, who has opposed the planned constitutional overhaul in a break with the Maduro administration.Associated Press