CARACAS Venezuela's foreign minister on Monday rebuked his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry, for criticizing the handling of street protests and reiterated accusations Washington wants to topple the socialist government.
In the U.S. government's strongest comments since demonstrations began in February, Kerry said last week that Venezuela's government had shown "total failure" of good faith in now-suspended talks to stem the unrest.
In Venezuela's worst violence in a decade, 42 people have died during months of daily protests demanding President Nicolas Maduro's departure and solutions to economic hardships.
"This is not an issue that concerns Mr. John Kerry," Foreign Minister Elias Jaua told reporters on Monday after returning from the regional Unasur bloc's meeting in Ecuador.
Maduro, who became president after the death of Hugo Chavez last year, says the protests are a veneer for a U.S.-supported conspiracy to bring him down.
"It's not Bolivarian paranoia; these are real facts that clearly violate international law," he added, next to a photo of Chavez, who re-named the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in homage to independence hero Simon Bolivar.
The Maduro government is particularly angry at some U.S. legislators' calls for sanctions on officials, though the Obama administrations has expressed reluctance for fear of curbing attempts at political reconciliation within Venezuela.
At its weekend meeting, the Unasur group of South American governments explicitly condemned the sanctions proposal as "violating the principle of non-intervention."
UNASUR HEARS COMPLAINT AGAINST U.S.
Venezuela made a formal complaint of U.S. interference at the Unasur meeting, in the Galapagos islands, and journalists at Monday's news conference were given a booklet of comments by Kerry and other U.S. officials to bolster the Venezuelan government's case.
Washington has scoffed at the accusations, saying they are a smokescreen to hide the government's domestic problems.
The specter of U.S. involvement in Latin America always stirs strong emotions in the region, which remembers the U.S. government's backing of military coups in the 20th century.
The Maduro government constantly reminds Venezuelans how Washington appeared to back a brief toppling of Chavez in 2002.
Demonstrators say they have no foreign masters and are simply complaining about food shortages, rampant crime and one of the highest inflation rates in the world.
The protests failed to spread significantly from middle-class bastions and have ebbed in recent weeks, leading Maduro to assert he survived an attempt to oust him.
The protests, which ranged from thousands-strong marches to night-time barricades of major avenues with burning tires, also fractured the opposition movement.
Some moderates deemed them useless, or even counterproductive, as they fomented government allegations that activists are elitist coup-seekers.
Hard-line protesters, who are vowing to carry on, retorted that institutions and courts are skewed against them, so taking to the street is the only way to make their grievances heard.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Steve Orlofsky)