CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Leftist allies of Venezuela on Tuesday rallied behind embattled President Nicolas Maduro in his faceoff with the U.S. government, which he is accusing of trying to oust his socialist administration.
In an emergency meeting of the ALBA bloc of regional governments, representatives from 12 nations decried what they called attempts by Washington to undermine Maduro with its recent decision to sanction Venezuelan officials accused of violating human rights during anti-government protesters last year.
By far the strongest defense came from Cuban President Raul Castro, whose government is negotiating for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the U.S. after more than a half century of Cold War frictions.
"The U.S. needs to understand once and for all that it can't seduce or buy Cuba, just as it can't intimidate Venezuela," Castro said. "Our unity is indestructible."
The meeting in Caracas came as tensions between Venezuela and the U.S. reached a fevered pitch after Maduro this month claimed Washington is plotting to oust him and ordered the U.S. Embassy in Caracas to slash staffing levels.
The U.S. has denied the accusations and last week it applied sanctions on the seven Venezuelan officials over the crackdown on last year's protests.
In an ad run Tuesday in The New York Times, Maduro's government declared that "Venezuela is not a threat" to U.S. security and urged Obama administration to immediately cease hostile actions.
"Never before in the history of our nations has a president of the United States attempted to govern Venezuelans by decree," the ad said. "It is a tyrannical and imperial order and it pushes us back into the darkest days of the relationship" between the U.S. and Latin America.
In Washington, senior U.S. administration officials told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that they will continue to press Venezuela and said concerns about the Maduro government's human rights record would be one of Obama's top priorities when he travels next month to Panama to attend the Summit of Americas alongside Maduro, Castro and 32 other regional leaders.
Alex Lee, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Latin America, said legislative elections expected to take place in Venezuela later this year offered the best chance to defuse a deepening political and economic crisis. The oil-dependent economy had widespread food shortages and the world's fastest inflation even before the recent plunge in crude prices burned a hole in the government's finances.
Lee said it is important for regional governments, almost all of which have criticized the U.S. sanctions as heavy handed, to mount a robust observation mission to ensure voting results are credible.
Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.