Saying that the hemisphere can no longer ignore widespread abuses in Venezuela, 26 former presidents signed a statement Thursday calling on the Andean nation to hold elections and free political prisoners.
The joint communiqué — signed by the former leaders of Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico and Spain, among others — comes as the hemisphere’s leaders begin meeting Friday during the seventh Summit of the Americas.
Former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar (1996-2004) said that the powerful visitors have a responsibility to tackle the thorny issue.
“They must understand that their silence and inaction make them accomplices in a situation that is absolutely unsustainable in Venezuela,” he said.
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Former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga (2001-2002) echoed the thought, saying he knew it was “uncomfortable” for sitting leaders to take Venezuela to task, “but it’s cruel and painful to have opposition leaders in prison.”
Sitting in the crowded conference room were Lilian Tintori, the wife of Leopoldo Lopez, head of the Voluntad Popular political party who was arrested 14 months ago, and Mitzy Ledezma, the wife of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma who was detained earlier this year.
As she accepted the signed petition, Tintori thanked the presidents, pumped her fist in the air and shouted “freedom!”
In the wake of national protests last year that left more than 40 dead, the government arrested a number of high-profile politicians, despite rebukes from the United Nations and others.
Earlier this week, 28 human rights organizations said that Venezuela is also cracking down on civil society organizations and asked the region’s presidents to “demand from [Venezuela] guarantees that human rights defenders can do their jobs without fear of suffering reprisals.”
Thursday’s declaration asks Venezuela to guarantee separation of powers, allow freedom of the press and, most importantly, hold elections. The country is slated to hold National Assembly elections this year, but the government hasn’t said when that will happen. Quiroga asked for clear dates, international observers and that political opponents be freed.
The government claims Lopez, Ledezma and others were plotting coups, but Quiroga said that their true crime was to “think differently.”
Former Colombian President Andres Pastrana (1998-2002) said the list of backers of the declaration was unprecedented in its scope. The last time so many leaders had their signatures in the same place “was probably a hotel guest book,” he said.
Even so, it’s doubtful that Venezuela will be rebuked publicly at the summit. The theme of this year’s meeting is prosperity with equity and leaders have said they will try to keep talks centered around the agenda.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, however, is trying to turn the meeting into a referendum on U.S. sanctions that were levied last month. His administration has been on a weeks’ long drive to collect 10 million signatures rejecting the sanctions and Maduro has said he will present it to President Barack Obama here.
Maduro also tweeted pictures of the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo, Cuba, and said the country had no right to question anyone’s commitments to human rights.
There are also signs, however, that diplomacy may be working. State Department Counselor Thomas Shannon visited Venezuela on Wednesday and Thursday. Before traveling to Jamaica on Wednesday, President Barack Obama told the Efe news agency that he did not see Venezuela as a menace — even though the executive order that sparked the sanctions expressly called the country an “extraordinary” threat to U.S. national security.
Maduro took the declaration as a victory.
“We have made President Obama recognize, in his own words, that Venezuela is not a threat,” he posted to Twitter on Thursday. But he also urged supporters not to stop there but to have the executive order repealed.
The tug-of-war comes amid growing expectations about the arrival of Cuban President Raúl Castro — marking the first time Cuba has participated at the event.
Cuban dissidents have been worried that the U.S. rapprochement talks and the island’s inclusion at the summit might obscure lingering problems. On Thursday, a group of activists called on the island to hold open and secret elections and to liberate political prisoners and allow freedom of the press.
“Despite the lack of international solidarity, the Cuban people deserve to be free and will be free,” said former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, a Miami Republican.
On Wednesday, a group of Cuban dissidents were confronted by supporters of the island’s communist regime. The confrontation led to pushing, shoving and landed a few people in detention.
Reacting to that news, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) said, “It’s hard to imagine a more sickening start to this summit.”
“It’s reflecting poorly on Panama, reminding us of the true nature of the Castro regime, and showing just how naïve President Obama’s Cuba policy is,” he said.