US diplomat cites 'total failure' by Caracas to ease unrest, respect rights and democracy

The United States rapped Venezuela's government Wednesday for a "total failure" on agreements to help ease unrest that has gripped the South American nation for months, and warned sanctions may be inevitable if human rights abuses continue.

In his first visit to Mexico as secretary of state, John Kerry said Caracas must stop jailing political opponents and cracking down on demonstrators who are demanding changes from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Kerry cited an impatience in the region with Maduro's socialist government, and said the U.S. considers "ourselves part of the neighborhood." He said Washington had high hopes for a stalled mediation between the government and the opposition that was led by Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and the Vatican.

Kerry blamed the government for the breakdown even though it was the opposition that last week froze the talks, saying dialogue was impossible after the arrest last week of more than 200 student protesters.

"Regrettably, there has just been a total failure by the government of Venezuela to demonstrate good-faith actions to implement those things that they agreed to do," Kerry told reporters in Mexico City, where he met with Mexican diplomats and education officials to foster a cross-border exchange student program.

"And so we believe that what is important is for the Venezuelan government now to honor the dialogue process," Kerry said.

He said he hopes sanctions against Venezuelan officials will ultimately be unnecessary, "but all options remain on the table."

Hard-line groups looking to force Maduro's resignation have sought to rally international opinion against his government. But most Latin American leaders have so far refused to back the U.S. calls for condemnation of Maduro's government, opting instead for talks.

That was clear Wednesday when Mexican Foreign Secretary José Antonio Meade — standing next to Kerry — did not specifically blame either side for the crisis but still pressed Caracas to respect democracy in Venezuela.

"We have been very supportive of the dialogue process in Venezuela, but we believe that this dialogue has to have some kind of conditions to be successful," Meade said. "We believe that the dialogue has first to be respectful, the dialogue has of course to be inclusive, and the dialogue should bring about results. In order for that dialogue to be meaningful, it should be held in an environment that is clearly respectful of human rights."

Congress is considering allowing the Obama administration to impose a visa ban and freeze the assets of Venezuelan officials who committed human rights abuses — a prospect that Maduro rejected Tuesday as "detestable."

The unrest began in February, leading to the deaths of at least 42 people on both sides. Protests in recent weeks have died down as a result of the government crackdown and divisions within the opposition over whether to engage the government in negotiations. Still, frustration with Maduro's government is rising as food shortages and galloping inflation erode support for his rule with his base among the poor.

The U.S. has supported regional efforts to reach a compromise.


Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Caracas contributed to this report.

Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at: