March 19, 2018 / 4:22 PM / a month ago

Colombia proposes IMF assistance for Venezuelan refugees

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Colombia proposed on Monday that the International Monetary Fund provide assistance to help several hundred thousand Venezuelan refugees who have fled an economic and political crisis to neighboring countries, officials at the G20 summit said.

The proposal was discussed at a meeting on Venezuela by leading finance ministers from the Western Hemisphere, the European Union and Japan, including U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

“The consensus is that the situation is extremely negative and we must by any means possible try to influence a solution to the problem and a change in Venezuela’s situation, mainly from the humanitarian point of view,” Brazilian Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles told reporters.

The fund, to be decided by the IMF next month, would only be used outside Venezuela and not by socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s “regime,” he said.

More than 500,000 Venezuelans have crossed into Colombia and 40,000 have left for Brazil as an economic meltdown worsened and opposition hopes of fair elections faded.

There were an estimated 886,000 Venezuelan migrants in South America in 2017, up from around 89,000 in 2015, the International Organization for Migration said in February.

An IMF spokesperson said of the proposal: “We look forward to subsequent discussions in which we would be involved.”

Secretary Mnuchin offered to host a follow-up meeting of the finance ministers on the margins of the World Bank/IMF Spring meeting in Washington, in April, a Treasury spokesperson said.

“The focus was on coordinating economic measures to achieve democratic political objectives in Venezuela, addressing the economic and humanitarian tragedy, and constructive responses once Venezuela allows free, fair and regular elections,” he said.

Colombia’s government was preparing a statement on the proposal, a finance ministry official said in Bogota.

The countries concerned with the Venezuelan situation also discussed sanctions and debt repayment as ways to encourage a solution to the crisis, Meirelles said.

“Some countries are already applying sanctions, like the United States. In the case of Brazil, we are owed $1.3 billion in trade financing and want that repaid,” he said. Venezuela recently paid arrears and is up to date, he added.

Other countries, led by Russia and China, favor a moratorium that would suspend Venezuela’s payments, he said. Russia and China did not attend the meeting.

Venezuela is undergoing a major economic crisis, with millions suffering food and medicine shortages, and Maduro’s government is late in paying about $1.9 billion in interest on its debt.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Additonal reporting by David Lawder in Buenos Aires and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Editing by Paul Simao and Sandra Maler

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