CARACAS The head of the Organization of American States (OAS) has called an urgent meeting to discuss whether Venezuela is violating basic democratic principles, paving the way for a vote that could suspend it from the regional diplomatic body.
Luis Almagro, a former Uruguayan foreign minister, also threw his weight behind calls for a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro, who he has called a "petty dictator."
He has accused the president of disrupting democracy by blocking the opposition-controlled Congress and putting loyalists in the Supreme Court.
"In Venezuela, the purpose of politics has been lost," Almagro said in a hard-hitting letter published on Tuesday requesting a permanent council meeting in mid-June to judge Venezuela's performance vis-a-vis the body's Inter-American Democratic Charter.
"They have forgotten to defend the general and collective long-term good, over short-term individual gain ... Immoral politics loses this vision because its only interest is staying in power."
Venezuela views the OAS as a pawn of hostile U.S. policy, and Maduro has often dismissed Almagro as a turncoat working for its ideological adversaries in Washington.
"I suggest you put this democratic charter in a very thin tube and find a better use for it, Mr. Almagro," said Maduro in a speech to supporters on Tuesday.
"You can shove that democratic charter wherever it fits."
He accused the opposition-controlled National Assembly of planning to request the intervention of a foreign power in Venezuela, and said he planned to sue the legislature's leadership for treason and usurping presidential powers.
Should Almagro's case against Venezuela proceed, a two-thirds vote in the 34-nation OAS' General Assembly would be needed to suspend Venezuela.
Opposition leaders are currently seeking to remove Maduro through a recall referendum.
The South American OPEC nation of about 30 million people is reeling from food shortages, vast lines at shops, the world's highest inflation, and a deep recession.
Opponents say the situation is the product of 17 years of failed socialist policies begun by Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez.
Almagro listed Venezuela's multiple woes from medicine shortages to alarming violent crime and regular power-cuts.
He also called for the freeing of jailed opponents and criticized Maduro's declaration of a state of emergency as part of "a gradual, sustained and systematic erosion of democracy."
The OAS suspended communist-ruled Cuba between 1962-2009. Havana has not returned given its view, like Venezuela, that the body is servile to Washington.
(Reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Girish Gupta and Tom Brown)