By Diego Oré
CARACAS (Reuters) - The head of the Organization of American States (OAS) on Tuesday said that crisis-wrought Venezuela should be suspended from the regional diplomatic body if it does not hold general elections "as quickly as possible."
Venezuela's election board in October suspended the opposition drive for a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro despite the OPEC nation's crushing economic crisis, the government's unpopularity and public opinion in favor of a plebiscite.
Luis Almagro, secretary general of the OAS and a former foreign minister of Uruguay, stressed that elections are key to allowing Venezuela to overcome severe food shortages and spiraling inflation.
"What's happened doesn't leave any doubts," Almagro said on Tuesday. "Venezuela is violating all the articles in the Democratic charter."
Elections "are the only real solution that exists," he added.
For Venezuela to be suspended from the OAS, a two-thirds vote in the 34-nation OAS' General Assembly would be needed.
Caracas can count on support from many poor Central American and Caribbean nations that receive Venezuelan crude under favorable terms. Leftist allies like Bolivia and Ecuador would also throw their weight behind Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader who rose to become foreign minister under his late mentor Hugo Chavez.
Still, South American politics are shifting toward the right, with Argentina, Brazil and Peru all losing leftist governments in recent months.
Grappling with fewer allies, Venezuela was expelled from the Mercosur trade bloc in December in part due to concerns about the government's human rights record.
There was no immediate comment from the Venezuelan government on Tuesday. Maduro views the OAS as a pawn of hostile U.S. policy and has often dismissed Almagro as a turncoat working for its ideological adversaries in Washington.
Almagro has called Maduro a "petty dictator" and criticized Venezuela's multiple woes ranging from food and medicine shortages to alarming violent crime and regular power-cuts.
"Approving the suspension ... is the clearest effort and gesture we can make at the moment for the people of that country, for the continent's democracy, for its future, and for justice," Almagro's 75-page report on Venezuela added.
The OAS suspended communist-ruled Cuba from 1962-2009. Havana has not returned given its view, like Venezuela, that the body is servile to Washington.
Venezuela's next presidential vote is slated for 2018.
(Reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Leslie Adler)