CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – U.S. Vice President Joe Biden calls Venezuela's situation alarming in remarks published Sunday, suggesting its government is using "armed vigilantes" against peaceful protesters and accusing it of "concocting false and outlandish conspiracy theories" about the United States.
Biden's remarks, issued in writing to a Chilean newspaper in response to questions, drew an angry rebuke from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
"We reject their aggression," President Maduro told supporters at a rally the socialist-led government held at the presidential palace. "They were defeated in the OAS and now they want revenge."
The U.S. had strongly objected to a declaration of solidarity for Venezuela issued by the Organization of American States on Friday night.
Washington said the declaration contradicted the OAS charter, in part, by stressing non-intervention in Venezuela over guaranteeing that human rights and free speech are respected there. Twenty-nine states voted in favor of Friday night's declaration with only the United States, Canada and Panama objecting.
"The situation in Venezuela reminds me of previous eras, when strongmen governed through violence and oppression; and human rights, hyperinflation, scarcity, and grinding poverty wrought havoc on the people of the hemisphere," Biden told El Mercurio.
"The situation in Venezuela is alarming," he wrote. "Confronting peaceful protesters with force and in some cases with armed vigilantes; limiting the freedoms of press and assembly necessary for legitimate political debate; demonizing and arresting political opponents; and dramatically tightening restrictions on the media" is not what Washington expects from a signatory to international human rights treaties.
Rather than engaging the opposition in a "genuine dialogue," Biden added, "Maduro has thus far tried to distract his people from the profound issues at stake in Venezuela by concocting totally false and outlandish conspiracy theories about the United States."
Maduro claims student-led protests that ignited Feb. 12, mostly peaceful but including almost daily street clashes with security forces, are an attempt by the extreme right to overthrow him.
The demonstrations have been joined mostly by middle-class Venezuelans fed up with inflation that reached 56 percent last year, chronic shortages of some food staples, and one of the world's highest murder rates. But some poorer Venezuelans, students in particular, are taking part. The government says 21 people have died.
On Sunday afternoon in eastern Caracas, about 100 demonstrators threw rocks at police, who responded with tear gas and water cannon. Some protesters tore a bus kiosk from the sidewalk and set it ablaze, providing authorities with an opportunity to repeat on state media its accusation that anti-government activists are vandals.
Despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary, Maduro on Sunday denied that armed paramilitary supporters of the government have employed violence against protesters.
"The only violent armed groups in the street are those of the right," he told the crowd.
In a statement issued by the presidency, Maduro also accused the opposition was "receiving financing from the United States" to undermine "a solid democracy that has had the popular backing in 18 elections over 15 years." He offered no evidence.
The statement said Venezuela was nevertheless interested in renewing" full diplomatic relations with the United States based on "mutual respect" and "non-intervention."
The two nations have been without ambassadors since 2010 and Venezuela has expelled eight U.S. diplomats in the past 13 months for alleged meddling.
Maduro, the hand-picked successor of the late Hugo Chávez, later met at the presidential palace with actor-activist Sean Penn and Haiti's prime minister. Penn is an ambassador-at-large for Haiti, where he runs a nonprofit aid group. He was shown on state television and made no public comments.
Biden and Maduro are both scheduled to attend Tuesday's swearing-in of Michelle Bachelet as Chile's president.
Bachelet, who was also Chile's president in 2006-10, recently said her administration will support Maduro's government and the Venezuelan people so they can "search for the democratic means to social peace."