UNITED NATIONS -- At U.S. urging, leaders from numerous South American countries convened Monday, prepared to step up pressure on Venezuela's socialist government by taking the rare action of invoking a regional mutual-defense treaty.
More than a dozen foreign ministers led by Colombia were scheduled to attend the meeting at the margins of the United Nations General Assembly to plot additional actions aimed at ousting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
By invoking the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, also known as the Rio Treaty, the governments were hoping to expand their powers to impose multilateral economic sanctions on Venezuela, a country already reeling under crushing poverty, deprivation and political chaos.
The 1947 Rio Treaty has not been activated since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. The accord establishes that a threat to one member is a threat to all.
The annual U.N. summit, the world's largest diplomatic stage, provides a charged platform and unparalleled audience for Maduro opponents trying to unseat him -- a campaign backed by the Trump administration that has largely floundered.
In addition to the Rio Treaty meeting, the so-called Lima Group, a smaller coalition of Latin American countries focused on Venezuela, was meeting, and opposition groups were being hosted by think tanks and holding bilateral talks with Trump administration officials -- including the president on Wednesday.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo announced last week that the Rio Treaty would be invoked on behalf of Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan opposition leader whom the U.S. and numerous other countries recognized as the legitimate leader of the once-oil-rich South American nation. Pompeo cited "bellicose actions" by Venezuela in purportedly deploying military units along its border with Colombia.
Eighteen Western Hemisphere countries are signatories to the treaty. The Maduro government does not belong to the pact, nor does Mexico.
"The one who has closed any door for negotiation, for elections, for national unity is Maduro himself," Julio Borges, who is Guiado's representative for foreign affairs, said Monday in an interview. "We must use all the tools we have to push him."
Borges spoke in the Venezuelan Consulate in New York, which anti-Maduro forces only managed to recuperate three months ago. They said the previous occupants, Maduro loyalists, ransacked the stately but faded building before leaving; there was little furniture and unfinished paint splotches on bare walls. But two handwritten letters exchanged by George Washington and South American hero Simon Bolivar remained displayed in glass cases.