US Vice President Mike Pence on Friday called for more sanctions on Venezuela to isolate President Nicolas Maduro and his administration, overshadowing the opening of a summit in Peru with Latin American leaders.
Pence urged the extra measures as he met with Venezuelan opposition figures in Lima who called for more sanctions and "intervention" in their crisis-hit country.
Maduro was not invited to take part in the summit, which began on Friday but was overshadowed by Pence's calls for sanctions and US-led strikes in Syria, which caused the vice president to abruptly leave the opening ceremony.
Most of the countries represented favor strong action against Caracas, though are wary of anything that could increase the flow of Venezuelans leaving their impoverished nation.
Pence said the US delegation he was leading at the summit was "bringing a message for additional sanctions, additional isolation, and additional diplomatic pressure -- beginning in our hemisphere, but across the wider world -- to recognize that Venezuela is a dictatorship."
The United States already has sanctions in place against Maduro and his top officials, as well as other measures preventing the teetering Venezuelan government and state oil company from accessing international credit through US markets or entities.
- Humanitarian funding -
So far, Washington has stopped short of imposing an embargo on Venezuelan oil imports -- a measure that would be crippling for Caracas but also damaging to refiners in the US dependent on Venezuela's heavy crude.
"We are with the people of Venezuela and will continue to do everything in our power to provide sustenance and support to those who have fled," Pence said.
He added that "the US and our allies, I believe, are prepared to do much more."
Pence said the United States would give $16 million in extra funding for humanitarian assistance for Venezuelans who have fled. Part of that funding was going to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
Hyperinflation, scarcities of basic food and medicine, and skyrocketing violence are gripping Venezuela, prompting a swelling exodus of its citizens that is increasingly concerning the UN.
The International Organization for Migration says nearly one million Venezuelans have left the country over the past two years. Many head to Brazil, Colombia and Panama, and often beyond.
Pence was filling in for President Donald Trump, who cancelled his trip to the summit to watch over America's response to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, which took the form of punitive strikes against President Bashar al-Assad's regime on Friday.
The US vice president's meeting with the Venezuelan opposition included Julio Borges, an opposition lawmaker and former speaker of the National Assembly, David Smolansky, former mayor of the city of El Hatillo, Carlos Vecchio, political coordinator of the Popular Will party he co-founded with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, and Antonio Ledezma, former mayor of Caracas.
Ledezma told Pence: "We ask not only for humanitarian aid, but humanitarian intervention." He urged the US to step up sanctions to "seize planes, yachts, mansions."
More than a dozen Latin American countries have strongly criticized Maduro, accusing him of trampling democracy by sidelining the opposition and appointing a super-legislative body over the heads of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
The countries, collectively named the Lima Group after the location of their first declaration, have vowed not to recognize the results of a May 20 Venezuelan presidential election that the opposition says Maduro has rigged in his favor.
Maduro accuses the United States of helping the opposition to undermine his authority by waging what he calls economic "sabotage" in Venezuela.