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Canada, allies, call on Venezuelan military to back opposition leader as president

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, middle, stands with Peru's Minister of Foreign Affairs Nestor Francisco Popolizio Bardales, front left, and Argentina Minister of Foreign Affairs Jorge Marcelo Faurie, front right, British Minister Responsible for the Americas and Europe Alan Duncan, middle back left, and United Sates Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft, middle back right, during a family photo at the 10th ministerial meeting of the Lima Group in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
February 04, 2019 - 2:29 PM

OTTAWA - Canada and its allies are calling on the Venezuelan military to back opposition leader Juan Guaido as the true leader of their country.

The declaration in the final Lima Group communique from Monday's emergency meeting in Ottawa comes two days after the defection of a top air-force general, once loyal to socialist president Nicolas Maduro.

"(Canada and the other Lima Group members) call upon the National Armed Forces of Venezuela to demonstrate their loyalty to the Interim President in his constitutional functions as their Commander in Chief," says the communique.

"Similarly, they urge the National Armed Forces not to impede entry and transit of humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans."

The declaration comes after Guaido made a larger-than-life appeal to Canada and its Western Hemisphere partners to end the "usurpation" of democracy in his country at the Ottawa meeting earlier on Monday.

Guaido issued the call in a surprise appearance via video link to the gathering of Lima Group members and several other partners, including the United States and European countries, in Ottawa.

"Unfortunately we are still under a dictatorship in Venezuela at the moment. That is why it is time to increase pressure," Guaido said through an interpreter, his enlarged image hovering over the gathering on a movie-theatre-sized screen. "I would like to reaffirm ... our actions and our co-operation with the Lima Group, along with Canada, and all the countries."

Canada and the Lima Group have backed Guaido, the opposition leader who's the head of Venezuela's legislature, as the legitimate replacement for Maduro, who followed left-wing populist Hugo Chavez into Venezuela's presidency after Chavez's death in 2013. Their meeting comes amid massive protests in Venezuela pressing Maduro to go.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland branded the Maduro government as a dictatorship that has shown an inexcusable disregard for the rule of law and human rights.

The two made the comments at the opening of Monday's emergency meeting of like-minded countries to discuss the political, economic and humanitarian crises in Venezuela, which has spilled over into its neighbours.

Trudeau announced $53 million worth of humanitarian assistance Monday for the "most-pressing needs" of Venezuelans. Canada has already contributed $2.2 million for the humanitarian crisis that's forced some three million Venezuelans from their homes, sending ripples across the region — particularly in neighbouring Brazil and Colombia, which are now faced with a refugee crisis.

The funds will go to "trusted partners" and neighbouring countries, Trudeau said.

"This is a pivotal moment for the people of Venezuela — we are observing a widespread rejection of the Maduro regime's illegitimate claim to power following fraudulent elections last May," he said.

The new Canadian funds sparked renewed calls for Maduro to allow humanitarian supplies into the country to alleviate the suffering he has inflicted on his citizens.

"It's urgent to create a channel of humanitarian aid for the Venezuelan people," said Peruvian Foreign Minister Nestor Francisco Popolizio Bardales, who said the emboldened Venezuelan opposition "represents the beginning of the end of the dictatorship."

The ambassadors of the United States and several European countries were also at the meeting. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was to address the group, behind closed doors, on a video link.

Outside, a small pro-Maduro demonstration wound its way towards the Ottawa summit site. One of Canada's largest unions — the Canadian Union of Public Employees — threw its support behind the Maduro government and called the Liberals' support of the opposition akin to aligning Canada with an American plan to engineer "a coup d'etat."

"They have also chosen to side with Donald Trump and U.S. foreign policy," CUPE said in a statement.

Alan Duncan, Britain's minister for the Americas and Europe, said Maduro's "mismanagement and kleptocratic approach" are singularly responsible for crippling his country's economy.

"If anyone believes that his management of the economy is in any way an example of how to go about it, then they need their heads examined."

Trudeau said the breakdown of democracy in Venezuela has been a years-long process that has featured "a dictatorship willing to use force, fear and coercion to retain power."

The prime minister acknowledged Guaido's personal representative, Orlando Viera Blanco, who joined the meeting in Ottawa in person. "We look forward to working with him on restoring democracy in Venezuela."

Freeland said the Lima Group allies stand on the side of human rights and of a peaceful, democratic and constitutional transition in Venezuela.

"What we have seen in recent weeks, with thousands of people taking to the streets to defy the Maduro dictatorship, is a united people standing as one to say: enough," she said.

Canada and its Latin American allies in the Lima Group, along with the United States, have been pushing for Maduro's departure. Now European countries have come on board, with Spain, Germany, France, Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Lithuania calling for free and fair elections as soon as possible.

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted out his support Monday, saying France recognizes Guaido as Venezuela's "president in charge" and said "Venezuelans have the right to express themselves freely and democratically." German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Guaido is now Venezuela's "legitimate interim president."

On Saturday, an air-force general defected to the opposition and reportedly fled to Colombia. He posted a video on YouTube declaring his country's transition to democracy was "imminent."

"As a country that has an open arms policy towards Venezuelans, we have received many important figures from the democratic opposition," said Federico Hoyos, Colombia's ambassador to Canada.

Guaido is "now the only legitimate representative of the Venezuelan state. Ex-president Maduro does not have a mandate any more," said Denis Fontes de Souza Pinto, Brazil's ambassador to Canada.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2019
The Canadian Press

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