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American nations to challenge Venezuela's Maduro authoritarian regime

Reuters/Henry Romero

Mexico's Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray helped lead the regional diplomacy that aims to increase pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Joint effort criticizing President Nicolás Maduro's government is rare in region.

Petroleumworld 03 24 2017

The U.S., Canada and Latin America's leading nations have agreed to challenge Venezuela's authoritarian regime, a joint effort that wouldn't have been possible until a recent political shift away from leftist populism across the region.

Fourteen nations plan to issue a joint statement in coming days calling on the government of President Nicolás Maduro to release political prisoners, return full powers to the National Assembly and set a timetable to hold regional elections that Venezuela has indefinitely postponed, according to Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray.

The joint statement could be released as soon as late Thursday, according to a source close to Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, a hemispheric body based in Washington, D.C. The source said Mr. Almagro would release his own statement shortly after.

“We feel the time has come to act,” Mr. Videgaray, who helped lead the regional diplomacy, said in an interview late on Wednesday.

A senior U.S. diplomat confirmed that the countries were working together to increase pressure on Venezuela. “The U.S. and Mexico are working well together with other countries on this issue,” the official said.

Ratcheting up the pressure on Mr. Maduro is a big shift for the region, where most countries have long shied away from interfering in each other's internal affairs.

The pressure on Venezuela reflects changing political dynamics in Latin America, where a string of once populist leftist governments have been thrown out of power. Countries like Argentina, Brazil and Peru that were friendly to Venezuela have moved toward the center-right. And elections in Ecuador next month could cause a shift there, too.

A draft statement, a copy of which was obtained by The Wall Street Journal, has won the support of leading Latin American nations, including Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Uruguay and Paraguay, Mr. Videgaray said.

“We consider it urgent to address as a matter of priority the release of political prisoners, the recognition of the legitimacy of the National Assembly's decisions as provided by the Constitution, and the establishment of an electoral calendar that includes the postponed elections,” the draft statement says.

“We will review the progress in addressing these challenges over the coming weeks as we consider next steps,” it adds.

An official at Peru's Foreign Relations Ministry on Thursday confirmed the language in the draft letter as well as Peru's support, but said he did not know when it would be released.

The draft statement, the wording of which could still change, echoes similar recent demands by Mr. Almagro, who recently called on the body's 34-member states to pass a resolution calling on Venezuela to make democratic changes within 30 days or be kicked out of the group.

But the joint statement—which members hope to submit for a vote as a resolution at the OAS—doesn't impose a 30-day period and says that kicking Venezuela out of the body is a “last resort” only to be taken if Venezuela doesn't show change “within a reasonable amount of time.”

Mr. Videgaray said the changes were done in the hopes of getting more countries to back the resolution at the OAS, where it needs two-thirds support to pass.

Even if the resolution doesn't pass, it is the strongest language by far against Venezuela and will increase pressure on Mr. Maduro, analysts said.

“It's one more step in the increasing isolation of Venezuela,” said Javier Corrales, a professor and Latin American expert at Amherst College. “It's a very important step in a region that realizes one of its members is in violation of the democratic precepts of the OAS charter.”

Countries that have refused to sign are Venezuela's closest allies, including Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. Mr. Videgaray said the U.S., Canada and others were lobbying the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Jamaica and St. Lucia. Many poorer Caribbean countries have long been subsidized by Venezuela with cut-rate oil, even though the shipments have been dramatically curtailed in recent years.

Caribbean nations which have depended on Venezuela's largess for subsidized oil imports will be loath to back any action against Caracas, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank

“A lot of these countries are worried about oil prices going back up,” said Mr. Shifter. “They will be very reluctant to join.” Still, he called it a “positive development.”

Mr. Maduro's government has escalated its suppression of dissent. Over the past year, after Venezuela's opposition won control of the National Assembly, the courts overturned every major decision by the assembly, essentially gutting its powers. The government continues to imprison opposition leaders like Leopoldo López. It also scuttled a recall referendum by the opposition and indefinitely postponed gubernatorial elections, both votes that Mr. Maduro's party was expected to lose.

By some estimates, Venezuela's economy shrank by some 16% in the past year alone, and millions have been thrown into poverty in the oil-rich country, including many who spend their days searching for food in garbage, images that have shocked other Latin American nations.

The diplomatic effort to encourage change in Venezuela has allowed Mexico to work closely with the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump on an issue that isn't related to trade, immigration or a border wall. “It's not the motivation, but it helps having a common cause,”

Mr. Videgaray said. Mr. Videgaray said he expected Venezuela to lash out in response and criticize Mexico's own rights record. But he said there was little doubt Mexico was a democracy and that it wouldn't allow itself to be bullied by Venezuela.

“If we back down now, when are we ever going to stand up again?”

Mr. Videgaray said. The drive to pressure Venezuela began at a recent meeting of the pro-trade Pacific Alliance, he said, which includes Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile. Mr. Almagro's report on Venezuela was circulated among the alliance members, who agreed it was time to take action.

Story by David Luhnow from The Wall Street Journal.

- david.luhnow@wsj.com

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