June 22, 2016 / 8:03 PM / 3 years ago

U.S. hopes for 'group of friends' to help Venezuela

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington has high hopes for an Organization of American States meeting on Venezuela on Thursday, which could lead to the formation of an alliance of interested nations to help resolve its crisis, a top State Department official said.

People shout during a protest over food shortage and against Venezuela's government in Caracas, Venezuela June 14, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

“Tomorrow’s meeting is in our view a very important meeting,” Annie Pforzheimer, acting deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, testified at a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

“We could see the formation of something like a ‘group of friends’ from the OAS member states who would... try to work with the parties in Venezuela and urge them to pursue sustainable solutions there,” she said.

Once one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations, OPEC nation Venezuela is grappling with a harsh economic slowdown. Long lines for food and medicines have led to protests and calls for a recall referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro.

Pforzheimer said that Luis Almagro, the OAS secretary-general, had written up a detailed examination of the situation in Venezuela and that the United States expected him to speak to member states about it.

Secretary of State John Kerry launched high-level talks to ease tensions with Venezuela’s socialist government earlier this month.

On Wednesday, U.S. diplomat Tom Shannon met with Maduro in Caracas to restart the talks.

Kerry said when he announced the talks that Washington did not support a push by Almagro to suspend Venezuela from the OAS for alleged violations of the regional group’s charter. The former Uruguayan foreign minister appears isolated in that respect, with even right-wing governments opposed to Maduro balking at throwing him out.

During the hearing, House members expressed deep concern about the Venezuelan situation, including worries about a potential migration crisis in nearby countries and human rights violations.

After the hearing, U.S. Representative Jeff Duncan, the subcommittee’s chairman, said that he would support the United States sending food and medicine to assist Venezuela, if Venezuela accepted them.

“We should send some humanitarian relief, food, medicine, technical expertise, whatever is necessary to get their electrical grid up and running, but the Maduro government’s got to be open to that,” he told reporters.

However, Duncan said he was not aware that any such assistance effort was under way.

Some members of Congress have called for more sanctions on Venezuela to push it to release political prisoners and allow more freedom of assembly and expression.

“The Venezuelan people are hurting, so I don’t know how sanctions help,” Duncan said.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Sandra Maler

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