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Foreign diplomats urge Venezuela’s Maduro to hand over power

January 4, 2019
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Foreign Ministers of the Lima Group gather for a meeting concerning Venezuela, in Lima, Peru, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. The group gathers in Lima to define a strategy for resolving Venezuela's growing crisis ahead of President Nicolas Maduro's Jan. 10 inauguration to a second term, which is widely dismissed as illegitimate. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

LIMA, Peru (AP) — A dozen Latin American governments and Canada delivered a blistering rebuke to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Friday, questioning the legitimacy of his soon-to-begin second term and urging him to hand over power as the only path to restoring democracy in his crisis-wracked South American country.

The sharp criticism came at a meeting in Peru’s capital of foreign ministers from countries including Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, all of which have been weighing how to confront the increasingly authoritarian Maduro while absorbing a growing exodus of Venezuelans fleeing economic chaos.

In a statement, the Lima Group urged Maduro to refrain from taking the presidential oath next Thursday and instead cede power to the opposition-controlled congress until new, fairer elections can be held.

“Only through the full restoration, as soon as possible, of democracy and a respect for human rights is it possible to resolve the country’s political, economic, social and humanitarian crisis,” the diplomats said.

Even before announcing the resolution, the group’s meeting with the participation of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo drew a sharp response from Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza. He accused the coalition of taking orders directly from President Donald Trump, who Caracas frequently accuses of spearheading an economic war against the country.

“What a display of humiliating subordination!” Arreaza said on Twitter.

A once-wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is in the throes of crisis after two decades of socialist rule, marked by hyperinflation that makes it difficult for people to afford scarce food and medicine. An estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans have migrated from the country since 2015, according to the United Nations.

The Lima Group was formed more than a year ago by mostly conservative-run regional governments seeking to defuse a crisis in Venezuela that is increasingly threatening regional stability. The group had joined the U.S. and others in condemning Maduro’s re-election in May as a sham after popular opponents were banned from running and the largest anti-government parties boycotted the race.

While the group previously denounced Maduro as a “dictator” and urged dialogue, its hard-edged resolution Friday calling on Maduro to step down suggests its members are losing patience and likely to join the U.S. in trying to ostracize and further punish the embattled leader.

Among other steps, the group vowed to block top Venezuelan officials from entering their countries and freeze assets they hold abroad. The resolution also expressed support for an effort to prosecute Maduro at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

But beyond the heated rhetoric, the anti-Maduro coalition showed signs of fraying along ideological lines.

Regional powerbroker Mexico was one of the early and biggest promoters of the Lima Group. But it sent a lower-level representative to Friday’s meeting who refused to sign the resolution, reflecting the policy of non-intervention favored by that nation’s new leftist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Maduro traveled to Lopez Obrador’s inauguration, meeting privately with the Mexican leader.

Maximiliano Reyes, Mexico’s undersecretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, said he didn’t back the resolution because it runs contrary to promoting dialogue, the spirit in which the international coalition was formed.

“Mexico is convinced that this type of action, far from resolving the situation in the country, would further deteriorate living conditions of Venezuelans,” he said.

The United States is not formally a member of the Lima Group but has been a vocal supporter and Pompeo participated in the meeting via video conference.

Pompeo this month made a visit to Latin America during which he attended the inauguration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and then stopped in Colombia to meet with President Ivan Duque. Both Bolsonaro and Duque have declared a united stance against Maduro’s government aligned with the United States.

The Trump administration considers Maduro’s government a “dictatorship.” It has sanctioned roughly 70 top officials and blocked U.S. banks from doing business with Venezuela, putting a financial stranglehold on the cash-strapped country.

Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, questioned Pompeo’s participation in Friday’s meeting.

He said the Lima Group was created to showcase concerns of Latin American nations about Venezuela’s crisis and Pompeo’s involvement furthers a perception that the U.S. has been quietly directing its moves.

The coalition should push for neutral actors to open dialogue between Maduro’s government and opposition leaders, finding ways to reduce mounting tensions and reach a peaceful resolution in Venezuela, Ramsey said.

“I’m worried that this paints the region into a corner, with no clear path forward,” Ramsey said of the resolution. “The truth is that Maduro isn’t just going to hand over the keys.”

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Associated Press writer Franklin Briceno reported this story in Lima and AP writer Scott Smith reported from Caracas, Venezuela. AP writer Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas contributed to this report.

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