The US on Friday brushed aside “absurd” accusations by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro that it was meddling in the country’s internal affairs by intervening in anti-government protests.
Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Elias Jaua had earlier called top US diplomat John Kerry a “murderer of the Venezuelan people,” accusing him of encouraging the protests that have killed 28 people in five weeks.
“The solution to Venezuela’s problems lies in democratic dialogue among Venezuelans, not in repression or in hurling verbal brickbats at the United States,” a US Department of State official said on condition of anonymity.
“Venezuela’s government needs to focus on solving its growing economic and social problems, not on making absurd allegations against the United States,” the official said.
However, Maduro said “the desperate government interventionism of the United States is clear.”
“There’s a slew of statements, threats of sanctions, threats of intervention. There has been lobbying by the highest officials in the US government,” he said.
The back-and-forth follows Kerry’s announcement before lawmakers on Wednesday that the US was ready, if necessary, to invoke the democratic charter of the Organization of American States and activate sanctions.
One day later, US senators introduced a bipartisan bill to pave the way for sanctions against Venezuelan authorities involved in human rights abuses and unlock US$15 million in funding for rights groups, journalists, activists and protesters targeted for their activities.
The bill could be up for discussion at the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the chamber reconvenes on March 24. Maduro has repeatedly denounced anti-government protests as an attempted coup carried out with the backing of the US.
The student-led movement launched on Feb. 4 was fueled by public fury over deteriorating living conditions in the oil-rich country.
Violent crime, shortages of essential goods like toilet paper and inflation have combined to create the most serious challenge yet for the leftist Maduro, who succeeded the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez last year.
Nearly 400 people have also been injured in the sometimes deadly protests.
Meanwhile, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos offered to serve as a mediator between government and opposition forces in Venezuela.
“If Venezuela feels that we are useful, we will go. The opposition must also consider it,” Santos said in an interview with the El Tiempo newspaper.
Maduro has accused former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, who waged a US-backed military campaign against leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, of also encouraging the violence in Venezuela.