Argentine President Mauricio Macri used his first appearance abroad since being inaugurated to take Venezuela to task over the quality of its democracy and human rights record.
On Monday, during a Mercosur conference in Asunción, Paraguay, Macri asked for the “swift liberation of all the political prisoners in Venezuela.”
“Within the Mercosur countries, there is no room for political persecution for ideological reasons or the illegal detention of those who think differently,” he added.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez shot back, saying Argentina shouldn’t meddle in sovereign affairs and that the people that Macri considers political prisoners had been detained for inciting violence during national protests in 2014.
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She also defended Venezuela’s human rights record.
“There’s not a country in the world that has social programs like Venezuela, despite the media, financial, commercial and economic attacks our people are facing,” she said.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had been expected at the event but was ultimately a no-show.
Macri won Argentina’s presidency last month, putting an end to more than a decade of Kirchnerismo, which had allied the nation with Venezuela. Shortly after his election, he’d threatened to expel Venezuela from the Mercosur, but softened his position after that nation’s opposition won a landslide congressional victory early this month.
The leaders of Mercosur — Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela — were expected to talk about jump-starting a languishing trade deal with the European Union and increasing ties with Pacific Alliance countries, which include Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico.
But the potential Venezuela-Argentina showdown was generating most of the buzz around the meeting.
Venezuela’s opposition claims more than 70 people are under arrest for political reasons. The government blames many of them (including former presidential candidate Leopoldo López) for inciting violence during national protests over the economy and crime.
The opposition has said that freeing those detainees will be one of its top priorities when the new legislative session begins Jan. 5.