Anti-Maduro protests rage as OAS meets on Venezuela crisis

By Andrew Cawthorne and Diego Oré CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan security forces used water cannons and teargas to disperse tens of thousands of opposition protesters heading toward the foreign ministry on Wednesday as the Organization of American States held another meeting on the crisis. Two months of protests against President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government have convulsed the South American OPEC nation, with around 60 people killed in the unrest. Opposition supporters demanding elections, freedom for jailed activists, and foreign humanitarian aid, marched onto Caracas' main highway aiming to reach the ministry downtown. But as happens near daily with rallies trying to reach government offices, National Guard soldiers blocked their way and drove them back with volleys of gas and shoots of water. Masked youths hurled stones and Molotov cocktails in return. "It's always the same. We set off peacefully and they attack us. We have to respond; we're human beings," said law student Brian Suarez, 20, holding a homemade wooden shield depicting a shooting target with the faces of Maduro and other officials. "Here are the faces of the people who have led us to ruin," he added, as some women handed food, shoes and other supplies to the young men battling the security forces. With international pressure mounting on Maduro, foreign ministers from the 34-nation OAS bloc met in Washington to debate the situation in Venezuela. "Our goal is to return to full respect for the rule of law, full respect for freedoms of political expression and participation," said Tom Shannon, the U.S. State Department's undersecretary for political affairs, as a group of countries pressed for "urgent action" to ease the crisis. "Today is an opportunity for us to demonstrate that this commitment remains alive and well relevant to the current plight of our Venezuelan neighbors," Shannon said. When that meeting was announced last month, Venezuela said it was withdrawing from the OAS in protest. Allies, which include fellow leftist nations and small Caribbean islands that receive cheap Venezuelan oil, defended Maduro during the OAS session, saying foreign powers were meddling in Venezuela's internal affairs. The meeting was adjourned after the Bahamas representative on behalf of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) proposed the meeting be suspended and that permanent representatives of the OAS meet again to continue to flesh out proposals. CONTROVERSIAL "CONSTITUENT" ASSEMBLY Maduro, 54, accuses opponents of seeking his violent overthrow with U.S. support, similar to a short-lived 2002 coup against his popular predecessor Hugo Chavez. He has called for the creation of a super-body, or constituent assembly, with powers to rewrite the constitution, in voting set for the end of July. "The constituent vote will bring us peace," said Food Ministry worker Freimar Ruiz, 29, at a government rally mainly attended by public sector workers to mark the beginning of a period in which people can sign up to be candidates. "They say we're paid to be here, but that's a lie, because if not, I wouldn't be so short of money!" she joked. Four years of recession caused by failing socialist economic policies plus the decline in global oil prices have battered Venezuela's 30 million people. Food and medicine are running short while inflation is believed to be in the triple digits. The crisis has also made Maduro deeply unpopular, with plenty of people within the ruling "Chavista" movement questioning the constituent assembly given that Chavez himself had the constitution re-written in 1999. Venezuela's opposition is refusing to participate, saying the vote set for July is a sham, with biased rules to ensure the body is filled with Maduro supporters. They fear a new assembly could then skew the rules for governors' elections in December of this year and the presidential vote slated for late 2018. Polls show the government would lose any conventional vote. As well as deaths, the unrest in Venezuela has led to hundreds of injuries and, according to local rights group Penal Forum, nearly 3,000 people arrested of whom 1,351 remain held. Opposition leaders say security forces have been particularly aggressive in recent days. It has also become common to see young men, their faces covered by a t-shirt, burning trash in the street to block traffic or asking passersby for a contribution to support the "resistance." The opposition called for an "empty pans" march on Saturday to protest hunger in the country. (Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington D.C. and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas; Additional reporting and writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing Toni Reinhold and Lisa Shumaker)