BOGOTA, Colombia -- The head of the Organization of American States on Thursday said the immoral "dictatorship" in Venezuela was the prime driver of a migration crisis that is rattling the region.
Speaking in the Colombian port city of Cartagena, Luis Almagro said Venezuela must return to democracy in order to stem the flow of people who are fleeing the country.
"This is a crisis that is absolutely immoral because it's created by the indolence of a government, it's created by the lies of a government," Almagro said. "Venezuelans are now looking for solutions abroad that they cannot find in their own country."
The hard-hitting words come as Almagro and an OAS delegation are touring the region to analyze the Venezuelan exodus, which is straining neighboring countries. The United Nations estimates that about 2.3 million Venezuelans currently live abroad, and that at least 1.6 million have fled the country since 2015 -- mostly to Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile and other parts of South America.
After meeting with Colombian President Ivan Duque, Almagro praised the nation's "open arms" policy toward Venezuelan migrants, but he said the crisis was too big for any one country to handle alone, and that it required "regional coordination."
Colombia, which is still emerging from a half-century conflict, says it has absorbed almost 1 million Venezuelan residents in the last few years, and Duque's cabinet has increasingly said it needs international aid to handle the inflow.
Once one of South America's most prosperous nations, Venezuela has been in an economic free fall for years, amid collapsing oil output, draconian price and currency controls and widespread corruption. Now the nation of 32 million has the world's highest inflation, chronic food and medicine shortages, and is suffering power and water outages.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who was re-elected in May in a controversial snap election that could keep him in power through 2025, claims that the migratory crisis is being exaggerated as part of ongoing operations to topple his government. In recent weeks, the administration has been offering Venezuelans in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and elsewhere free flights home, suggesting that the migrants are trapped abroad in "slavelike" conditions.
Almagro said the Venezuelan airlift was just another "immoral" propaganda ploy to obscure the brutal truth in Venezuela. But the reality of hundreds of thousands fleeing -- the largest migratory event in South America's recent history -- is a truth that "has completely escaped (the government's) control," he said.
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This is the "clearest rejection of the dictatorship in Venezuela," he said.
Maduro has long accused the OAS of being a pawn of the United States, and the South American nation has initiated the process of withdrawing from the body, which includes every country in the Americas except Cuba.
On Friday, Almagro will lead the OAS delegation to Cucuta, the Colombian border town where tens of thousands of Venezuelans enter the country on a daily basis. While many are just crossing temporarily to buy hard-to-find food and medicine, for others it's the beginning of an epic journey that will take them thousands of miles away to places such as Santiago, Chile, and Lima, Peru.
The delegation will also travel to other countries in the region as part of its fact-finding mission. Last week, the OAS created a "working group" to study Venezuelan migration. In a further affront to Caracas, Almagro named David Smolansky, the former mayor of El Hatillo, a suburb of Caracas, and an outspoken Maduro critic, the chairman of the working group.
Venezuela ordered Smolansky's arrest in 2017 for allegedly allowing anti-government protesters to build roadblocks and throw rocks in his city. He went into hiding and fled to Brazil before re-emerging in Washington, D.C.
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