SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden says Venezuela's political and social situation is alarming and accuses Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of inventing conspiracies by Washington to distract attention from the South American country's troubles.
Maduro has faced several weeks of nationwide student-led protests that he claims are an attempt by far-right instigators to overthrow him. The demonstrations have been joined by mostly middle-class Venezuelans fed up with inflation that reached 56 percent last year and one of the highest murder rates in the world. The government says 21 people have died in the street protests since Feb. 12.
"The situation in Venezuela is alarming. The Venezuelan government has a basic responsibility to respect universal rights, which include freedoms of expression and assembly; to protect people from violence, and to engage in genuine dialogue in a deeply divided country," Biden said in an interview published Sunday in the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio.
Biden's remarks coincided with U.S. objections to a declaration of solidarity for Venezuela issued by the Organization of American States that Washington said contradicted the OAS charter because it was not unanimous and because it stressed non-intervention in Venezuela's affairs above protesting infringement of human rights and free speech. Twenty-nine states voted in favor of the declaration with only the United States, Canada and Panama objecting.
"The situation in Venezuela reminds me of previous eras, when strongmen governed through violence and oppression; and human rights, hyperinflation, scarcity, and grinding poverty wrought havoc on the people of the hemisphere," Biden told El Mercurio.
"President Nicolas Maduro has thus far tried to distract his people from the profound issues at stake in Venezuela by concocting totally false and outlandish conspiracy theories about the United States. Instead, he should listen to the Venezuelan people ... ."
A statement by Venezuela's government published Sunday rejected Biden's criticism, calling it disrespectful to Venezuela's sovereignty and "a direct aggression to its people, which have suffered the attacks by a fascist sector" that wants to carry out a coup.
They're "receiving financing from the United States to make an attempt on the tranquility of the Venezuelan people in order to injure a solid democracy that has had the popular backing in 18 elections over 15 years," the statement said.
Biden and Maduro are both scheduled to attend Tuesday's swearing-in of Michelle Bachelet as Chile's president. Bachelet, who was also Chile's president in 2006-10, recently said her administration will support Maduro's government and the Venezuelan people so they can "search for the democratic means to social peace."
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman in Washington, Frank Bajak in Caracas, Venezuela, and Marianela Jarroud in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.
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