WASHINGTON (AP) — Members of the Organization of American States urged Venezuela's government and opposition to settle their differences through dialogue Tuesday, backing off from threats to suspend the socialist-run country and providing President Nicolas Maduro some short-term relief as he struggles to rescue the polarized nation from crisis.
The contentious special meeting at the OAS headquarters in Washington underscored the difficulty that regional governments increasingly concerned about Venezuela's crisis face as they try to force the unpopular Maduro to cede some power to his opponents and restore badly damaged democratic norms.
The outcome also showed the degree to which Venezuela, even crippled by triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages of basic goods, can still count on an alliance with a few small Caribbean nations whose support was won through years of subsidized oil shipments.
In an angry speech, Venezuelan Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Samuel Moncada took aim at a coalition of OAS member states pushing Venezuela to hold elections, accusing them of infringing on his nation's sovereignty.
The meeting grew so tense that Mexico's representative stood up from his seat and threatened to leave after another leader characterized Moncada's lashing as a "country-by-country harangue."
"Stick to the point," Mexican Ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba told Moncada tersely in English.
"I came here to say what I need to say," Moncada said after being repeatedly scolded. "I don't care about their reaction."
The meeting was called to debate a 75-page report issued two weeks ago by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro in which he characterized Venezuela as a country where rule of law no longer exists and called on member nations to suspend Venezuela unless elections are held soon.
Hours before the meeting began, Maduro's opponents decried what they see as another power grab: a surprise ruling by the government-stacked Supreme Court threatening to impose limits on the immunity enjoyed by opposition members of congress.
"Once aberrations of this gravity begin we do not know where they will end," the U.S. representative at the OAS, Michael Fitzpatrick, said about the ruling.
He said that it was essential for Venezuela's government accept the hand being extended by the OAS and that further delays in restoring democratic order meant the region's solidarity with "the suffering people of Venezuela only grows deeper and stronger."
The three-hour meeting ended with a declaration on behalf of 20 nations pledging to take concrete steps toward a diplomatic solution, but provided few details on what that would involve.
Representatives from the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Haiti voted with Venezuela in trying to cancel the meeting altogether, despite a warning from Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican chairman of the U.S. Senate subcommittee that deals with Latin America, that U.S. aid to them could be cut off if they don't stand up for democracy.
As is the case whenever Venezuela's actions are questioned in international forums, Moncada was defiant. If Colombia wants to help Venezuela, he said, "Stop the production of cocaine." Canada's principles "change every day." Mexico is confronting problems "far more serious that are not discussed here," he said.
While the meeting ran on, top Venezuelan officials addressed a big "anti-imperialist" rally in Venezuela's capital denouncing the OAS's actions as an affront aimed at toppling the socialist vision instilled by the late President Hugo Chavez.
"We've defeated the State Department, we've defeated the Mexican foreign ministry, we've defeated the Venezuelan right wing" a jubilant Maduro said later during a televised Cabinet meeting.
David Smile, a Tulane University professor, said the celebration may be short-lived. As evidenced by the OAS meeting, international pressure is building on Maduro, especially from the Trump administration, which recently slapped drug sanctions on Venezuela's vice president and has forcefully called for Maduro to release political prisoners.
"The government dodged a bullet today, but it remains firmly in the public spotlight," said Smilde, who lives part of the year in Venezuela. "That not a place they want to be."
In his report, Almagro accused Venezuela of violating "every article" of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, citing a strong-handed executive branch that disavows every law passed by the opposition-controlled National Assembly and has imprisoned some 100 opponents.
Venezuela is a signatory of the charter, which entitles the OAS to suspend member states by a two-thirds vote if it finds the democratic order has been broken. Previously the OAS suspended Cuba, following the triumph of Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, and Honduras, after a 2009 military coup.
Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo reported this story in Washington and AP writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia. AP writers Fabiola Sanchez and Jorge Rueda in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.