SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday called for Venezuela to respect freedom of expression, release political prisoners and alleviate shortages of food and medicine as the South American country plunges deeper into economic crisis and political turmoil.
At a general assembly session of the Organization of American States in the Dominican Republic, Kerry also urged Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government to “honor its own constitutional mechanisms, including a fair and timely recall referendum that is part of that constitutional process.” Maduro’s opponents have launched a complex effort to recall him.
“Like all people of the Americas, Venezuelans have the right to use constitutional mechanisms to express their will in a peaceful and a democratic manner,” Kerry said.
Kerry’s comments at the opening session of the OAS meeting received a blistering response from Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, who portrayed the top U.S. diplomat as a bully. The two envoys were to meet one-on-one Tuesday afternoon.
“I feel the ruler of the world has spoken, and who on top of it all has the audacity to voice his opinion on other countries,” she said after Kerry’s statement.
Maduro has blamed his socialist government’s deepening problems on an “economic war” mounted by critics in league with Washington.
On Tuesday, Rodriguez accused OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro of encouraging an interventionist stance in Venezuela to oust Maduro from office. She alleged that Almagro was “on the payroll of Washington.”
Venezuela’s mounting troubles are not on the business agenda of the OAS assembly, but Kerry said Almagro’s invocation of an article in the Inter-American Democratic Charter will open a formal discussion about the situation by the regional body’s permanent council later this month.
Kerry said that discussion would help facilitate a national dialogue in Venezuela “that will ultimately address the political, economic, social and humanitarian dimensions of this crisis.”
“I emphasize the humanitarian dimensions. Just this morning, we learned of people who are dying in a food line, or waiting to get medical help that they need,” he said.
During his statement, Kerry also mentioned Haiti as “another area of concern for all of us” with that country’s lawmakers scheduled to vote on extending caretaker President Jocelerme Privert’s term or paving the way for a new interim leader until presidential elections can be held.
A widespread perception of rampant electoral fraud in Haiti led to repeated cancellation of a presidential runoff and appointment of Privert as interim leader. Last month, a five-member commission reported significant fraud and professional misconduct in the first round of voting on Oct. 25 after examining 25 percent of the roughly 13,000 tally sheets from polling stations.
Haitian electoral officials have announced that a new presidential round will be held in October with additional safeguards in place to deter fraud. If no one secures a majority, a runoff would follow on Jan. 8.
“The men and women of Haiti deserve the chance to express their will and elect a president without further delay,” Kerry said.
Associated Press writer David McFadden contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.