MIAMI (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence held up Venezuela on Thursday as a prime example of what happens when democracy is undermined and urged Latin American leaders to condemn its government, in comments that Venezuela's president called nauseating.
Already suffering a severe economic crisis, Venezuela, a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, has recently been convulsed by clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters.
"We need only look to the nation of Venezuela to see what happens when democracy is undermined," Pence told the gathering of leaders in Miami. "That once-rich nation's collapse into authoritarianism has pushed it into poverty and caused untold suffering for the Venezuelan people."
Stepping up Washington's war of words with Caracas, Pence added: "We must all of us raise our voices to condemn the Venezuelan government for its abuse of power and its abuse of its own people, and we must do it now."
At least 69 people have died in the unrest in Venezuela since early April, with hundreds injured. Opposition has been fanned by Maduro's plan for July 30 elections for a special assembly to rewrite the constitution, which critics say are stacked in his favour.
The Maduro government calls the protesters violent coup-mongers, supported by the United States.
"I tell the vice president of the United States, get your nose out of Venezuela, there will be no gringo, Yankee, imperialist intervention in Venezuela," Maduro said in a TV broadcast with members of the armed forces.
Maduro added that he read Pence's comments "and it provokes nausea that a man who doesn't know where Venezuela is on the map gives his opinion about our country."
Earlier this month, the United States denounced Venezuela for suppressing protests and called for free elections, saying Maduro must not be allowed to follow a "dictatorship" path like Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Pence was at a conference to discuss improving security and economic prosperity in Central America, specifically in the violent nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Foreign ministers from across the hemisphere will travel to Cancun, Mexico, next week for a meeting of the Organization of American States, where Venezuela will be discussed.
Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney