Will Maduro attend summit in Peru? Venezuelan leader divides countries before Trump visit

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro answers questions from the press after signing a document defining electoral guarantees for the presidential election at the National Electoral Council in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, March 2, 2018.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro answers questions from the press after signing a document defining electoral guarantees for the presidential election at the National Electoral Council in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, March 2, 2018. AP

Peru’s decision to withdraw Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s invitation for the upcoming Summit of the Americas next month in Lima is dividing governments in the region, with one Caribbean leader even offering to host a separate summit if Maduro isn’t allowed back in.

Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the eastern Caribbean and a staunch Maduro supporter, said that “several countries are writing letters ... urging the president of Peru to not disinvite Maduro.”

In February, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski revoked Maduro’s invitation in response to Venezuela’s snap presidential elections and the country’s deepening economic and social crisis. On Wednesday, Kuczynski offered his resignation ahead of an impeachment vote amid corruption allegations. He said unjustified attacks by the opposition made it impossible for him to govern. It’s unclear what effect this will have on the upcoming summit.

Maduro has publicly insisted he will attend the hemispheric conference on April 13 and 14 “to defend Venezuela’s truth.”

And Gonsalves indicated that Venezuela has allies in the region, saying that “a number of governments look on with displeasure that the Peruvian government is disinviting Maduro. No one government has that authority so to act. This is a hemispheric meeting. No single government can do that.”

Though St. Vincent belongs to the 15-member Caribbean Community regional bloc known as Caricom, the organization has not taken a position on Maduro’s presence at the summit.

Gonsalves wouldn’t specify which countries are objecting to Peru’s decision, though he did say the countries are both Caribbean and non-Caribbean. He said he has not spoken with current Caricom chairman — and Venezuela supporter — Haitian President Jovenel Moïse about Maduro’s invitation, and leaders ran out of time before being able to raise the matter during last month’s two-day Caricom summit in Port-au-Prince.

But Maduro’s invitation did come up earlier this month in Caracas during a meeting of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, or ALBA, the bloc of left-leaning nations that the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez created to counter Washington’s influence in the region.

While attending the meeting of ALBA presidents, Gonsalves volunteered to host a summit if Maduro is banned from attending the Summit of the Americas. President Donald Trump is planning to attend as part of his first trip to Latin America since he took office.

“Everybody belongs to the organization, including Cuba, which attended the last summit,” said Gonsalves, whose tiny nation is among five eastern Caribbean countries that belong to ALBA and have called for ‘non-interference’ in Venezuela’s internal affairs. “I don’t think we should play games with the summit in that kind of way.”

The regional rift over Venezuela is likely to remain on the fringes of Wednesday’s Organization of American States meeting, where U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is expected to condemn Maduro and call on all member nations to increase pressure on his regime. On Monday, a new round of U.S. sanctions against Venezuela went into effect when the Trump administration banned U.S. citizens from using the country’s newly launched cryptocurrency, the Petro.

“The sanctions are not going to make Maduro more unpopular,” said Gonsalves, noting that previous U.S. financial sanctions and the declaration by Trump in August that he would not rule out “a military option” in Venezuela “mobilized people who otherwise would not have gone to the polls.”

The Venezuelan crisis has created a strife within Caricom which, despite its differences, tries to present a united position around issues of international importance.

A source familiar with the internal debate said Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, which are ALBA members, and Suriname could end up boycotting the Summit of the Americas to show solidarity with Maduro. Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana and Saint Lucia likely would attend, the source said.

Peru, acting as the summit’s host, announced the decision after a meeting of a coalition of mostly Latin American nations plus Canada, known as the Lima Group, that is seeking to stabilize Venezuela.

The Peruvian government’s decision was backed by the group in a declaration signed by ministers and representatives from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Saint Lucia.

Although not a member of the Lima Group, the United States also supported the decision and, in a State Department press release, said that the organizers “upheld the high democratic standard for Summit participation.”

The situation, however, entered the arena of the surreal two days later when Maduro announced that nothing will keep him from attending the summit.

“I am going to that summit and we will see each other’s faces, and I will defend Venezuela’s truth,” Maduro said at a press conference. “What is it — are you afraid of me? You don’t want to see me in Lima? Well, you will see me, because come rain or shine, be it coming over by air, land or sea, I will arrive at the summit.”

Gonsalves’ support for Maduro has come under fire from other Caribbean leaders.

Asked whether he’s prepared to boycott the summit should Peru not reverse itself, Gonsalves said he has not decided. “We are hoping that good sense will prevail,” he said. ‘There are several countries saying we are not going to go, but no formal position has been taken.”

Maduro’s critics point out that while supporters are quick to come to his defense, they’ve been reluctant to defend democracy and have ignored the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the oil-rich South American nation that has forced thousands to flee across its border to neighboring countries and South Florida.

“We mentioned all the time, the issue of democracy, the values of democracy, the rule of laws,” Gonsalves said. “But we also emphasize non-intervention in the internal affairs of a country, the respect for sovereignty and independence.”