March 27, 2017 / 8:20 PM / in 4 months

UPDATE 2-Venezuela seeks to stymie OAS meeting, vows 'severe' response

3 Min Read

(Adds foreign minister's comment)

By Diego Oré and Lesley Wroughton

CARACAS/WASHINGTON, March 27 (Reuters) - Venezuela called on Monday for the suspension of an Organization of American States meeting intended to air regional concerns over the OPEC nation's economic crisis and democratic standards.

The Washington-based OAS is due to debate Venezuela on Tuesday after its secretary-general, Luis Almagro, said the country should be suspended from the regional bloc if it does not hold elections.

Last week, 14 nations urged elections and freedom of jailed opponents of President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government, turning up the pressure after authorities thwarted a referendum on him last year and postponed local polls.

Maduro, the 54-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez, says the OAS is a pawn of hostile U.S. policy. His government said in a statement that Tuesday's proposed meeting broke the bloc's rules and should be canceled.

"If this illegal, unilateral, deviant and biased behavior in favor of violent extremists in Venezuela continues, we will proceed with severity and firmness," the statement read.

Venezuela's suspension from the OAS would not have any major financial implications for the crisis-hit nation, but would be a symbolic defeat the ruling Socialist Party is keen to avoid.

Visiting the OAS on the eve of the debate, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez lashed out at Almagro and accused him of a campaign to destroy Venezuela.

"He lacks independence when he voluntarily bows to the wishes of the most powerful nation of this organization and becomes its spokesman," she told the OAS permanent council, saying Almagro was obsessed with denigrating Venezuela.

"Almagro has used 21 percent of his tweets - one in every five - for his campaign against Venezuela."

Even though regional disquiet is growing, diplomats believe Almagro lacks the two-thirds of votes necessary to trigger a suspension of Venezuela, given staunch support from some leftist governments and sympathies among Caribbean nations that have long received subsidized oil from Caracas.

Opponents say Maduro has turned Venezuela into a dictatorship and wrecked the economy by fanning corruption and persisting with failed socialist policies. He accuses foes of an "economic war" intended to presage a coup against him.

Maikel Moreno, the Venezuela Supreme Court chief whose rulings have been crucial to overriding the opposition-led National Assembly and preserving Maduro's power, asked the government to push for Almagro's removal as OAS boss.

Socialist Party officials announced an "anti-imperialist" march for Tuesday to coincide with the OAS session. (Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Girish Gupta; Editing by James Dalgleish and Dan Grebler)

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