CANCUN, Mexico – 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, thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, to protest against President Nicolas Maduro’s government. Hundreds of national guard troops and riot police fired rubber bullets to try to disperse the crowds, which are trying to block Maduro’s plans 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 backed by the U.S. of waging an “economic war” to destabilize his rule.
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. “Maduro is again attempting the change the rules of the game to maintain access to power, privileges, patronage, and protections.”
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.
Earlier Monday in Caracas, groups of government supporters and opponents exchanged shoves and blows outside the offices of Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, who has opposed the planned constitutional overhaul in a break with the Maduro administration.