Argentine President Mauricio Macri has electrified a Mercosur trade bloc summit with the demand that Venezuela release its dozens of political prisoners or face sanctions from the group.
The recently elected conservative used his first appearance abroad as president of Argentina to criticize the socialist government of Venezuela for repressing political dissidents and arresting leaders of the opposition. “I would like to ask specifically here, before all the presidents, for the swift liberation of political prisoners in Venezuela,” he said, flanked by the presidents of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia. “There cannot be room among Mercosur states for political persecution for ideological reasons, nor for the illegitimate deprivation of liberty of those who think differently,” he added on Monday. “I want to ask of Venezuela that it consolidate a true democratic culture in the region, a democracy that includes all.”
The government of Venezuela responded swiftly. While President Nicolás Maduro was not in attendance, allegedly due to a scheduling conflict, Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs Delcy Rodriguez accused Macri of “interfering” with domestic Venezuelan affairs and “defending violent people.”
“You are defending political violence,” she said, accusing peaceful anti-socialist protesters of “using bazookas” against the police and burning dowb public Ministry buildings. “I understand that President Macri wants freedom for these violent people; in the exercise of your power, you vetoed laws against torture,” she claimed, without providing evidence for her claims. Macri served as mayor of Buenos Aires before becoming president.
Venezuelan police have been caught on video using tear gas and water cannons on peaceful dissidents, including opposition members of the legislature. Dissident groups estimate there are over 70 prisoners of conscience in Venezuela, paramount among them, Leopoldo López, the head of the opposition Popular Will party. While the Venezuelan government has attempted to smear López as an anti-socialist American agent, Popular Will is actually a member of the Socialist International, and López has stated his opposition to the Maduro government is based both on its inability to function efficiently and its lack of respect for human rights.
Venezuela became a member of Mercosur in 2012, following a series of suspect procedural moves by the leftist presidents of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. The three nations suspended Paraguay from Mercosur that year, following the impeachment and removal of leftist President Fernando Lugo, allowing for a unanimous vote for Venezuela.
Mercosur’s charter requires that all member states be democracies. If a nation “breaks the democratic order,” it can be suspended, sanctioned, or removed entirely. As Venezuela has staged elections during the Maduro tenure – albeit some with serious fraud allegations – its Mercosur allies have not sanctioned it.
Immediately following Macri’s election in November, the Venezuelan government began attacking him as an ally of the United States, alleging that Macri would try to “divide” Mercosur on American orders. “Macri received orders from the United States to try to divide Mercosur. … He is going to kick us out of everything, because allegedly there is no democracy here,” state ombudsman Tarek William Saab said of Macri in November. The Venezuelan government has repeatedly accused the United States of being behind various assassination conspiracies, as well as all the nation’s economic woes.