US Vice President Mike Pence called Venezuela a failed state on Wednesday, urging the UN Security Council to sever the credentials of the Latin American country's ambassador and take urgent action to end a months-long political crisis.
In a heated session in New York, Mr Pence arrived late for the emergency discussions on Venezuela, but then took the US seat on the council, condemning what he said was inaction from the UN.
"We call on this body to stand up for democracy and the rule of law," the US vice president said, asking the council to join 55 nations that recognise opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's leader, rather than the de facto president, Nicolas Maduro.
"Nicolas Maduro must go," Mr Pence said, asking council members to recognise Mr Guaido's leadership and allow his appointee to take Venezuela's seat at the UN.
He then turned his gaze to the country's ambassador to the UN, Samuel Moncada Acosta.
"This body should revoke the credentials of the current representative. With all due respect Mr ambassador, you shouldn't be here," Mr Pence said, noting that there would soon be further economic sanctions on Mr Maduro's regime.
"Juan Guaido is the only true representative of Venezuela. It's time for the United Nations to act."
The UN General Assembly, not the council, has the power to withdraw a member country’s credentials.
The US vice president's comments came after UN officials briefed the council that the number of Venezuelans who are in exile could rise to five million from the 3.7 million currently outside the country. An estimated 5,000 citizens are leaving Venezuela each day because of the nation's economic downturn, which the US blames on Mr Maduro's socialist policies. A quarter of the population is in need of food aid because of chronic shortages.
The permanent representative at the UN for Russia, the Venezuelan president's biggest ally, responded to Mr Pence's comments by saying the US attempt to intervene was “another episode of a tragedy in several acts” of an American history of attempted regime change.
China, which along with Russia blocked a US-sponsored resolution on Venezuela at the council in February, reiterated its support for Mr Maduro and said it “opposed any military intervention”.
Facing intense pressure at home and abroad, Mr Maduro has sought to weaken Mr Guaido. The government has stripped the opposition leader of parliamentary immunity, authorised his prosecution for proclaiming himself acting president, and banned him from holding public office for 15 years. Mr Guaido said earlier this week he feared abduction by government agents.