Canada and a dozen Latin American governments 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.
Venezuela says countries following Trump's orders
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 U.S. 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 crisis after two decades of socialist rule, marked by hyperinflation making 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 the United Nations.
The Lima Group formed more than a year ago to advocate for a solution to Venezuela's crisis that threatens regional instability. Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico are among the group's members. The group 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.
Immediately following Maduro's May 20 re-election, the coalition announced that it refused to recognize the results, decrying the vote as failing to meet "international standards of a democratic, free, just and transparent process."
On Friday, 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.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland addresses reporters during a meeting of the Lima Group in Mexico City last May. The group formed last year to advocate for a solution to Venezuela's deepening political and economic crisis, which threatens regional instability. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)
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 favoured by that nation's new leftist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Maduro travelled to Mexico for Lopez Obrador's inauguration and met privately with the leftist leader during the visit.
The United States is not formally a member of the Lima Group, but 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 signalled a united stance against Maduro's government aligned with the United States.
'Terrible' optics of Pompeo presence at meeting
The Trump administration considers Maduro's government a forming "dictatorship," sanctioning roughly 70 top officials and blocking U.S. banks from doing business with Venezuela, putting a financial strangle-hold on the cash-strapped country.
Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, called the optics of Pompeo's presence in Friday's meeting "terrible."
The Lima Group was created to showcase regional concern for the crisis among Latin American countries, he said, adding that Pompeo's involvement furthers a perception that the U.S. has been quietly directing its moves from behind the curtains.
Rather, the coalition should push for neutral actors to open dialogues between Maduro's government and opposition leaders, finding ways to reduce mounting international pressure and finding 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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