Washington and its hemispheric allies on Saturday took turns hammering Venezuela over its human rights record — urging the region to reject the country’s “sham” May 20 presidential elections and agitating for more sanctions.
But the tough stance drew withering rebukes from Bolivia and Cuba that questioned the United States' moral authority at a time when it was launching airstrikes on Syria.
Meeting in Lima, Peru for the eighth Summit of the Americas, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence — who was filling in for President Donald Trump — said the United States would not stand by as Venezuela devolved into “dictatorship.” And he called on the region to ramp up sanctions.
“The United States believes now is the time to do more, much more,” he said. “Every free nation gathered here must take action to isolate the [Nicolás] Maduro regime. We must all stand with our brothers and sisters suffering in Venezuela.”
He also blamed Cuba for exporting its “failed ideology across a wider region.”
“As we speak, they are aiding and abetting the corrupt dictatorship in Venezuela,” he said.
Pence’s speech drew an angry response from Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, who argued that it was “completely undemocratic” to attack Maduro when he’d been excluded from the meeting and couldn’t defend himself.
Rodríguez called the United States a bellicose, racist country that had launched illegitimate wars around the world, including Friday’s missile attack on Syria. And he said the students who were gunned down in Parkland, Florida, earlier this year were a “sacrifice” made to the gun lobby and political interests.
The United States’ “moral vacuum cannot be, is not, a reference for Latin America and the Caribbean,” Rodríguez said, as the U.S. delegation walked out.
But Washington also had plenty of backing, as the leaders of Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Peru and Brazil, among others, questioned Maduro’s attempts to cling to power.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said next month’s vote in Venezuela — which excludes key opposition figures — “is designed to mask a dictatorship,” and Chilean President Sebastián Piñera said “no country that respects democracy should recognize these elections.”
While Venezuela and Cuba provided the fireworks, the official theme of this year’s event was, perhaps fittingly, anti-corruption.
Leaders from at least 11 Latin American countries have been tainted by the "Odebrecht scandal," after the Brazilian construction firm confessed to paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for contracts.
Earlier this month, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva began serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption and money laundering. And Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the would-be host of this year’s summit, was forced to step down in March amid allegations he received more than a million dollars from the construction firm before becoming president.
The Trump administration is also under its own cloud, as the president's global business empire has been caught up in a federal investigation.
“I don’t want to be too dramatic in this comparison, but the Trump administration has, on multiple instances, engaged in behavior that would be considered corrupt anywhere in the world,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of Latin American politics at Florida International University. “This same behavior in any Latin American country would be a big scandal and rattle the government.”
On Saturday, summit attendees signed “The Lima Commitment,” a 56-point document that outlines anti-corruption efforts, like more cross-border cooperation and tightening of anti-graft laws.
But it wasn’t an uncontested stance. Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister Allen Chastanet said he fully supported anti-corruption efforts but worried that extra rules and bureaucracy would make it hard for small countries like his to compete.
“Transparency should not be so onerous that it takes precedence over development,” he said. “Impractical and subjective mechanisms are unsustainable.”
And Bolivia’s President Evo Morales said that the “war on corruption” — like the war on drugs and war on terror — would be used by the United States and others as an excuse to “topple legitimate governments.”
“The main threat against democracy, against peace, against freedom … against multi-lateralism is the United States,” he said.
The accord itself was something of a victory for Cuba and Venezuela. The U.S. delegation had been hoping that the final statement (which requires across-the-board approval) would include statements about defending democracy in the region.
Asked about the missing language condemning Venezuela and Cuba, Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who was holding meetings on the sidelines of the event, said that the vast majority of democratic countries in the region were in agreement.
“There is a consensus, even if there’s no unanimity,” he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also said there was broad agreement that Venezuela’s elections were a sham. He said Maduro’s rivals had been jailed, the media had been muzzled and government-backed gangs have intimidated voters.
“That’s not an election,” he said.
The region has been increasingly alarmed by Venezuela’s collapse and the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the country — particularly to neighboring Colombia and Brazil.
Santos said his nation was the one that “had most suffered due to the desperate situation that Venezuelans are going through.” The government estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 have entered the country in recent years.
“We have been and will continue to be generous with the people of Venezuela,” he added. “But we will be relentless with the oppressive regime that has done so much damage to Colombia and the rest of the region.”
Brazil’s President Michel Temer also associated the exodus with Venezuela’s political breakdown. “There is no space in our region for alternatives to democracy,” he said.
On Friday, the United States said it was earmarking an additional $16 million to help Colombia and Brazil deal with the influx. And Pence demanded that Venezuela allow aid organizations to deliver life-saving medicine and food.
“Sadly, with regard to the people who are still in your native country, Nicolás Maduro stands in the way, refusing humanitarian aid to be delivered to Venezuela. And the world deserves to know that,” Pence said on Friday, after meeting with members of the Venezuelan opposition. “The simple truth is that Nicolás Maduro has turned Venezuela democracy into dictatorship.”