Fourteen countries urge Venezuela to hold elections

Venezuela has been rocked by protests as it struggles to emerge from political and economic crises

Fourteen countries from North and South America, including the United States, called on Venezuela Thursday to release political prisoners and "re-establish democracy" by holding elections.

However they moved away from an earlier threat by the head of the Organization of American States (OAS) to suspend Venezuela from the regional group.

The joint statement -- signed by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the United States, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay -- was issued by the Mexican Foreign Ministry.

"We consider it urgent for priority to be given to releasing political prisoners, recognizing the legitimacy of decisions by the National Assembly, according to the constitution, and establishing an electoral calendar that includes postponed elections," the document said.

A presidential election is scheduled for December 2018, while gubernatorial polls originally set for last December have been delayed until this year, although no date has been fixed.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who has called Venezuela a "dictatorship", issued a 75-page report on the country's political situation last week, indicating Venezuela's membership in the group could be suspended if it does not hold a general election in the near future.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government accused Almagro of promoting "international intervention" in the country.

Venezuela has been rocked by protests as it struggles to emerge from political and economic crises. The country has been hit by devastating shortages of food, medicine and basic goods after global prices plummeted for its chief export, oil.

Maduro says the crisis is the result of an "economic war" by US-backed business interests.

His opponents however blame the failure of 18 years of socialist "revolution" under former president Hugo Chavez and Maduro, who succeeded his mentor in 2013.

In their statement, the 14 countries said they were "deeply concerned" about Venezuela's political, economic and social crises.

They would "carefully" evaluate Almagro's report "with a view to agreeing on a coordinated course of action."

The countries also asked Venezuela to guarantee the effective separation of powers and respect the rule of law and democratic institutions.

However, suspending Venezuela from the OAS should be a "last resort," they added, to be taken only after all diplomatic efforts have been exhausted.