CARACAS – Venezuela’s government announced Wednesday it will go ahead with its threatened withdrawal from the Organization of American States, the regional body whose leader has been one of the fiercest critics of embattled socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
The move came on the same day as fierce confrontations in the capital between security forces and anti-government protesters who staged yet another march amid political unrest that has been blamed for 29 deaths in recent weeks. Clashes were also reported in other Venezuelan cities.
Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez called for the OAS withdrawal after a brief but contentious meeting at the group’s Washington headquarters in which its permanent council voted in favor of holding a special session to evaluate Venezuela’s crisis, adding to mounting international pressure for Maduro to schedule delayed elections and free detained political activists.
Rodriguez said the OAS’s action was taken to “intervene and take custody of our country, something that fortunately will never happen.”
Tension between a block of OAS members that includes the United States and Venezuela has been steadily rising since Secretary General Luis Almagro issued a 75-page report in March accusing 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. Almagro unsuccessfully urged OAS members to suspend Venezuela unless general elections were held soon.
Late Tuesday, Rodriguez had warned that Venezuela would quit the OAS if the body proceeded with scheduling a special session on the crisis here, calling it an infringement on Venezuela’s sovereignty. She said the pressure being brought by the US on some members like Haiti to punish Venezuela had been considerable.
Withdrawing from the OAS is a two-year process, but Rodriguez said Venezuela would immediately stop participating. Venezuela is estimated to owe the OAS about $10.5 million in unpaid annual dues. No country has ever withdrawn from the group since its founding in 1948.
Earlier in the day, thousands of protesters marched on Caracas’ main highway seeking to deliver a message to the national ombudsman, whose job is to stand up for citizens’ rights but who the opposition has tagged the “defender of the dictator.” They were met with plumes of tear gas that sent demonstrators running.
“The repression is very strong,” Luis Florido, an opposition lawmaker, said as clouds of the white gas swirled around him.
Opposition leaders said one protester, Juan Pablo Pernalete Llover, 20, died after being struck by a canister of tear gas. In all, 29 people have been killed, more than 400 injured and nearly 1,300 detained in the monthlong unrest roiling the nation.
Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets demanding Maduro hold elections and denouncing his government as being responsible for triple-digit inflation, food shortages and a rise crime. The protests have frequently ended in violent confrontations with security forces, which have used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds, and there also have been clashes with pro-government groups.
Opposition leaders have blamed armed pro-government militias known as “colectivos” for a number of the deaths, while government officials have accused the opposition of working with criminal gangs to foment unrest.
The swell of protests is the most violent in economically struggling Venezuela since two months of anti-government demonstrations in 2014 that resulted in dozens of deaths. Maduro has called for renewed dialogue, but opposition leaders have discarded that as an option after earlier talks collapsed in December.