US: Venezuela sanctions may be 'important tool'

Venezuela had the full attention of North and South American diplomats Thursday.

The U.S. State Department issued its strongest response yet to the ongoing crisis in the socialist country, saying it would consider imposing sanctions if the administration of President Nicolas Maduro doesn't reconcile with opponents who have been protesting for nearly three months.

Meanwhile, a delegation of foreign ministers from South America was expected to issue recommendations aimed at easing the unrest.

Maduro's administration announced that it had already accepted at least one of the suggestions: the formation of an official human rights commission that will report directly to the president and look into allegations of overreach.

The oil-rich nation has been widely criticized for its harsh crackdown on opponents protesting inflation, crime and shortages. Clashes between protesters and loyalists have left at least 32 people dead.

The State Department's top official for Latin America said sanctions could become an "important tool" to pressure Maduro if he fails to engage critics.

"If there is no movement, no possibility of dialogue, if there's no democratic space for the opposition, obviously we have to think about this, and we are thinking about this," Assistant Secretary of State Roberta S. Jacobson told reporters in Washington. She added that the U.S. would work with its partners in the region to impose any such measures as efficiently as possible.

It was unlikely that the delegation of South American diplomats, who have been at odds with the U.S. over how to handle the country's volatility, would issue its own threat of sanctions. The group has been in Caracas since Tuesday meeting with the government, student protesters and human rights defenders.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. was considering all options to address human rights concerns in Venezuela, including sanctions being pushed by U.S. lawmakers for weeks. He didn't provide details about what would trigger such a response, and said he was reluctant to damage an already weak economy.