OAS Chief Urges Support for Vote on Removing Venezuela's President

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The leader of the Organization of American States urged member countries Thursday to support efforts in Venezuela to hold a referendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro from office.

At a special meeting of its Permanent Council on the political and economic crisis in oil-rich but beleaguered Venezuela, OAS secretary general Luis Almagro said the country is in the midst of a "grave disruption of constitutional order."

But the four-hour meeting ended with no decision on measures against Venezuela.

Venezuela's oil-dependent economy, saddled with the world's highest inflation rate, is in a dramatic free fall because of the drop in crude prices, and Maduro's government has jailed opposition leaders.

The opposition has collected signatures to try to force a referendum on removing Maduro from power.

"The Permanent Council should stay on the right side of history and defend a people who need a voice," Almagro told the assembly.

He said the council should express support for political prisoners in Venezuela and "support the will of the Venezuelan people in their call for a recall referendum" against Maduro -- the former bus driver who was the handpicked successor to the late charismatic populist leader Hugo Chavez.

- Crisis reaches 'critical moment' -

Almagro presented delegates with a report that describes the political and economic woes of Venezuela. The country is enduring severe shortages of food and other basic goods. Looting has broken out.

"This crisis is reaching a critical moment," he said.

"A country that should be one of the richest in the region is instead facing unprecedented levels of poverty, a severe humanitarian crisis and one of the highest crime rates in the world," the secretary general said.

The special session was opposed by Venezuela. Its Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez walked out of the chamber when Almagro began his speech. Earlier, she complained that the OAS was effectively putting one of its member states on trial.

The countries attending the meeting were supposed to determine if Venezuela is abiding by the terms of a blueprint called the Democratic Charter. But the session ended with no decision made on whether to invoke the charter.

This is a binding document that spells out what democracy entails and lets the OAS intervene diplomatically if a constitutional crisis is deemed to pose a threat to democracy in a member country.

As a last resort, a country can be suspended from the OAS for failing to comply with the charter.

Venezuela's allies Bolivia and Nicaragua have sided with Caracas in solidarity, and demanded that Almagro resign.

The session was the second in the space of a week that the OAS held about the Venezuela crisis, efforts that have won the support of opposition leaders working to rid the country of the socialist regime.