Argentina joined with more than a dozen other nations from Latin America and Canada yesterday to urge President Nicolás Maduro to abstain from being sworn in for a second term in Venezuela and cede power until new elections can be held, saying it is the only way to restore democracy in the crisis-hit nation.
The 14-member Lima Group said they would not recognise Maduro as the nation’s legitimate leader after meeting in the Peruvian capital to discuss ways to step up international pressure on the regime, which has presided over the oil-rich country’s economic crisis.
Along with Argentina, regional heavyweights including Brazil, Colombia and Mexico are among the group’s members. However, Mexico – now under the leadership of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador – abstained from the vote this time around.
The new administration has adopted a policy of non-intervention, and Maduro travelled to Obrador’s inauguration, meeting privately with the new Mexican leader.
Peru’s Foreign Minister Néstor Popolizio said the group had delivered “a strong political message.”
The strong rebuke from the Lima Group, urging Maduro to hand over power to the opposition-controlled National Assembly, comes days before his January 10 inauguration to a new six-year term.
“The main message is undoubtedly the non-recognition of the Venezuelan regime’s new term,” Popolizio told reporters at the summit.
The Lima Group said Maduro should temporarily transfer power to the National Assembly until free elections can be held.
“Nicolás Maduro is urged not to assume the presidency, to respect the powers of the assembly and to temporarily transfer power until new elections are held,” Popolizio said.
Officials said earlier that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would participate in the meeting by video conference – even though Washington is not officially a member of the 14-nation body.
Pompeo also was to hold bilateral talks with Brazil’s new Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo on the sidelines of the meeting, also by video-conference, according to an agenda released by Araujo’s office.
Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, called the optics of Pompeo’s presence in yesterday’s meeting “terrible.”
The Lima Group was created to showcase regional concern for the crisis among Latin American countries and Pompeo’s involvement furthers a perception that the US has been quietly directing its moves, he said. Rather, the coalition should push for neutral actors to open dialogue between Maduro’s government and opposition leaders, finding ways to reduce mounting international pressure and reaching a peaceful resolution in Venezuela, Ramsey argued.
“I think what the region needs to do now is to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,” Ramsey said. “Isolating the government and continuing to pile on the pressure without channelling some kind of productive release hasn’t produced productive results.”
Even before announcing its decision, the gathering in Peru’s capital prompted a sharp response from Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, who accused the coalition of taking orders directly from US President Donald Trump, whom Caracas frequently accuses of spearheading an economic war against the country.
“What a display of humiliating subordination!” Arreaza posted on Twitter.
The arrival in power of a new far-right government in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro is likely to harden regional opposition to Maduro.
Bolsonaro, who has aligned himself with Washington by expressing hostility towards “authoritarian regimes,” said on Thursday he was open to discussing his country hosting a US military base “in the future.”
Hinting at a possible reason for that move, Venezuela recently hosted the Russian Air Force, including long-range nuclear bombers, for joint military exercises – a move that stoked regional tensions.
Peru has previously said it would use the meeting to urge members to cut diplomatic ties with Caracas as Maduro prepares to begin a second term after a controversial May election boycotted by the overwhelming majority of the opposition.
The move coincides with a statement from Venezuela’s opposition-dominated but toothless National Assembly, which said it would not recognise the “illegitimate” Maduro when he takes office.
“We are facing a man who stole an election. We will not have more than a usurper [as president]. Neither Venezuelans nor foreigners can recognise Maduro as president,” opposition deputy Delsa Solorzano told the AFP news agency.
Maduro, who was handpicked by late president Hugo Chávez to succeed him when he died in 2013, was re-elected in May after early elections called by the Constituent Assembly, a body created by Maduro which has in practice replaced the legislature.
The Lima Group statement reiterated its support for the National Assembly, which it recognises as Venezuela’s “constitutionally elected body.”
Washington has recently stepped up contacts with several Latin American countries dealing with the influx of migrants from Venezuela’s worsening economic crisis.
Pompeo was in Cartagena earlier this week for talks with Colombian President Iván Duque. Both officials have denounced Maduro’s “dictatorship” and agreed to step up efforts to isolate his government diplomatically.
“It is very important that the Lima Group has issued this statement to continue exerting pressure with a view to the restoration of democracy in Venezuela,” said Popolizio, the Peruvian minister.
The regional group – created in 2017 after more than 125 people died in anti-Maduro protests in Venezuela – has refused to recognise the May elections, which were marred by irregularities as well as an opposition boycott. At the time, the group said the vote had failed to meet “international standards of a democratic, free, just and transparent process.”
A once-wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is in 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 their country since 2015, according to figures collated by the United Nations.