MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) – European and Latin American leaders called for dialogue and elections to solve a deepening crisis in Venezuela on Thursday, warning against rash intervention in the country even as trucks bringing humanitarian aid lined up near the border.
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks to soldiers while he attends a military exercise in Maracaibo, Venezuela February 6, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS
International pressure on Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro to step down has intensified this week as a flood of EU members followed the U.S. move to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president of the economically shattered South American nation.
Russia and China continue to back Maduro and have warned Washington and others not to intervene.
Holding its inaugural meeting in Uruguay’s capital Montevideo, the European Union-backed International Contact Group on Venezuela called for a more hands-off approach than that advocated by the United States and some other Latin American nations.
The group, in a communiqué after the meeting, said it would send a technical working group to Venezuela to push for elections as quickly as possible, adding that overly forceful intervention in the country could aggravate the crisis.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said the group, launched late last month, was pushing for a peaceful and political solution, adding that a resolution ultimately must come from the people of Venezuela.
“This is not only the most desirable result but is the only result if we want to avoid more suffering and a chaotic process,” Mogherini said in Montevideo alongside Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez.
“The biggest dilemma facing Venezuela is between peace and war, which is why we are insisting in our call for calm from the parties involved and the prudence of the international community,” Vazquez said.
The group’s communiqué said it would reconvene at the beginning of March to measure the progress of its plan.
EU member states in the group include France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Britain. Latin America members include Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico and Uruguay.
In power since 2013 and re-elected last year in a vote critics have called a sham, Maduro has presided over an economic collapse marked by widespread shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation. An estimated 3 million Venezuelans have left the oil-rich OPEC-member country.
The first trucks carrying humanitarian aid meant to cross the border into Venezuela arrived on Thursday in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, where officials were to await instructions on how to distribute the food and medicine.
Escorted by police motorcycles, the trucks pulled into the northern city, where desperate Venezuelans were waiting to see whether Maduro’s government would clear the border road he has blocked and allow the humanitarian shipments to pass.
In Washington, Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy on Venezuela, said President Donald Trump’s administration is imposing a ban on travel to the United States by members of Venezuela’s constituent assembly, a body controlled by Maduro and denounced by the opposition as illegitimate.
Regarding aid being send to Venezuela’s border, Abrams said, “I don’t think we or the Colombians or the Brazilians or anyone else is planning to try to force it in.”
GENERALS AND SOLDIERS
Maduro, who calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to foment a coup, has maintained power with the backing of Venezuela’s military, though the opposition leader has asked the military to side with the forces of democracy.
In Washington, Navy Admiral Craig Faller, head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that the majority of Venezuela’s 2,000 generals were loyal to Maduro because of the wealth they amassed from drug trafficking and petroleum and business revenue. But Faller said rank-and-file soldiers were starving “just like the population.”
“The legitimate government of President Guaido has offered amnesty, and a place for the military forces, most of which we think would be loyal to the constitution, not to a dictator, a place to go,” Faller told the hearing.
Faller said the U.S. military is prepared to protect American personnel and diplomatic facilities in Venezuela if needed, though he did not provide any details.
Guaido has galvanized the opposition since taking over as head of Venezuela’s National Assembly in January. Last month, he declared himself interim president, opening the door for Washington and others to recognize him as the legitimate leader.
“Naturally I appeal to all of those who can help us … to help put an end to this usurpation of a transition government, and bring truly free elections to Venezuela as soon as possible,” Guaido told the Sky24 television channel in Italy.
The International Monetary Fund, which a new government in Caracas would likely call on for financial assistance, is awaiting guidance from its member countries on whether to recognize Guaido, IMF spokesman Gerry Rice said on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Helen Murphy in Bogota, David Lawder, Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Adam Jourdan in Buenos Aires and Steve Scherer in Rome; Writing by Paul Simao and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Will Dunham