South America's UNASUR pledges to help Venezuela address shortages in basic foods, other goods

CARACAS, Venezuela – An association of South American countries on Friday urged the region to help Venezuela keep basic goods on the shelves.

The 12-nation UNASUR group called on every country in Latin America to do what they can to ensure Venezuelans have access to staples after a delegation met with President Nicolas Maduro. Secretary General Ernesto Samper said UNASUR would create a special commission to strengthen distribution chains.

Pantry and cleaning basics like dish soap, detergent, milk and cooking oil, chronically in short supply in recent years, have become been even harder to find in the socialist-governed country since the year started.

The meeting between South American foreign ministers and Venezuelan officials in Caracas had been expected to address the more abstract problems of rising tension between the administration and the opposition.

Maduro recently accused opposition leaders of conspiring with the U.S. to bomb the presidential palace, while government critics are furious about the case of a 14-year-old boy killed by police during an anti-government protest. Emotions had already been running high amid rising violence and crippling economic problems, with both sides focused on legislative elections slated for the end of the year.

The opposition expressed skepticism about the UNASUR visit, while Maduro welcomed it. State-sponsored media portrayed the visit as a fact-finding mission to investigate the opposition’s purported coup plot.

More than 30 local and international non-governmental groups signed on to a letter to UNASUR urging it to help ensure respect for human rights in Venezuela. Among other things, the letter calls for revision of a policy that allows for the use of deadly force to control protests.

A delegation from the regional group last visited in May, trying to calm conflicts between the administration and protesters who staged weeks of often-violent street demonstrations. Those talks broke down, and the country remains as polarized as ever.

Leaders of Caribbean nations also gathered in Caracas on Friday for a meeting of Petrocaribe, a decade-old trade program created by the late President Hugo Chavez that requires member countries to pay only a small portion of the up-front costs for oil, allowing them to finance the rest under long-term debt agreements.

With the fall in the price of crude, Venezuela is struggling economically and is looking for ways to wring cash out of the alliance’s debts. On Friday, however, Maduro pledged to strengthen the program, saying it “has done more good for the economic lives of the Caribbean people than any project history.”


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