U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stepped up Washington’s war of words with Venezuela on Thursday, telling Latin American leaders the country was a prime example of what happens when democracy is undermined, and urging the region to condemn its government.
Already suffering a severe economic crisis, Venezuela, a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, has recently been convulsed by clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters.
Opposition has been fanned by President Nicolas Maduro’s plan for July 30 elections for a special assembly to rewrite the constitution, which critics say are stacked in his favor.
“We need only look to the nation of Venezuela to see what happens when democracy is undermined. That once-rich nation’s collapse into authoritarianism has pushed it into poverty and caused untold suffering for the Venezuelan people,” Pence told a gathering of Latin American leaders in Miami.
“We must all of us raise our voices to condemn the Venezuelan government for its abuse of power and its abuse of its own people, and we must do it now,” he said to applause at the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America.
At least 69 people have died in the unrest in Venezuela since early April, with hundreds injured.
The Maduro government calls the protesters violent coup-mongers, supported by the United States.
Earlier this month, the United States denounced Venezuela for suppressing protests and called for free elections, saying Maduro must not be allowed to follow a “dictatorship” path like Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Pence was at a conference to discuss improving security and economic prosperity in Central America, specifically in the violent nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
He praised U.S. President Donald Trump’s tough stance against illegal immigration, saying it was responsible for a more than 70 percent drop in illegal crossings of the U.S.-Mexico border since the beginning of his administration in January.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, apprehensions of illegal immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border fell to 19,967 in May from 42,473 in January, a drop of 53 percent.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney)