President Nicolas Maduro called Thursday for a meeting of South American leaders on the turmoil in Venezuela after more than a month of anti-government street protests.
Maduro made the request to visiting Suriname President Desi Bouterse, the current head of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur).
The move came a day after the Venezuelan leader broke off relations with Panama following its call for a meeting of the rival Washington-based Organization of American States on the crisis.
Maduro said he wanted a Unasur meeting convened so he could to explain “the attacks, the violence, the small groups that have tried to undermine social life and impose a political situation that our country is overcoming.”
In a speech Wednesday, Maduro angrily rejected OAS involvement, saying Venezuela would turn to other regional organizations that do not include the United States.
The OAS scheduled a closed door meeting for later Thursday to consider a request by Panama for a foreign ministers’ meeting on Venezuela.
In Havana, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez denounced the “attempts at interference” by the OAS and Washington.
“Venezuela has every right to defend its independence and sovereignty,” he said, pledging Cuba’s unyielding support for the Maduro government in the face of attempts to overthrow it.
Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally, depends on Caracas for half its energy needs at preferential prices and provides it with 40,000 advisers and health care workers.
Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, another Maduro ally, said “one or two” Unasur presidents did not want to convene an emergency summit, creating an obstacle because the group’s bylaws require that all 12 of the group’s member states agree.
Street protests erupted in Venezuela on February 4 and have continued every day since in the biggest challenge yet to Maduro’s nearly year-old government.
At least 18 people had already been killed when Maduro spoke, and shortly afterward officials said a policeman and a motorcyclist had died in a street battle.
Public anger over violent crime, shortages and arrests of demonstrators have fueled the protests.
But Maduro charges they are part of a US-backed plot by “fascists” to destabilize his socialist-inspired government.