Peru leads toughening stance on Venezuela after court power grab

LIMA (Reuters) - Peru on Friday urged other nations to match its tough stance on Venezuela and withdraw their ambassadors from the country to protest the “authoritarian” takeover of its Congress by the pro-government Supreme Court.

Peru's Minister of Transport and Communications and Vice President Martin Vizcarra talks during an interview with Reuters at his office in Lima, Peru, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

Venezuela’s top court took control of the legislative body earlier this week in what critics described as a coup. Protests and international condemnation have grown, with Peru taking the hardest line.

Calling the move a “flagrant breach of democracy,” Peru, led by centrist President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, immediately called back its ambassador and won praise from many democracy activists in the region.

“It’s a rapid gesture that other countries should take so Venezuela sees it’s alone on that path,” Peru’s Vice President Martin Vizcarra told Reuters in an interview. “If we want a country, a continent to be governed by democracy, I think all countries must have a firm position of disavowing any kind of coup or authoritarianism.”

Latin American leaders have become increasingly critical of Venezuela in recent years as its economic and political crises have deepened and voters have replaced one-time allies of Venezuela’s charismatic late President Hugo Chavez with more conservative governments.

Peru has emerged as the regional leader on efforts to press Venezuela to enact democratic reforms in the absence of a clear strategy from the United States, which called the Venezuelan court’s move a “serious setback for democracy.”

Even leftist allies like the government of Ecuador’s Rafael Correa have sought to distance themselves from Venezuela. Ahead of Sunday’s presidential elections, right-wing challenger Guillermo Lasso has warned that the leftist candidate wants to turn Ecuador into Venezuela. Foreign Minister Guillaume Long rejected the comparison.

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“They’ve been trying to confuse the population with the argument that Ecuador is going to turn into Venezuela” for 10 years, Long said. “But no, Ecuador is not Venezuela.”

Mexico helped rally 14 countries to produce a declaration calling for the “re-establishment of democracy” last week in a departure from its usual more neutral stance.

But Mexico, which has already been jolted by a diplomatic crisis this year after U.S. President Donald Trump took office, has not withdrawn its ambassador from Venezuela since the Supreme Court power grab.

“Peru has contributed the most, because it has been very clear,” said Jorge Castaneda, Mexico’s foreign minister under former President Vicente Fox, who broke with traditional Mexican foreign policy to take a tough stance against Cuba.

Castaneda said Mexico does not yet appear to have a well thought-out strategy on Venezuela and called on Mexico to quickly move a motion in the Organization of American States (OAS) invoking the diplomatic body’s democratic charter.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto expressed worry about the “deterioration of democracy” in Venezuela on Friday and instructed his foreign ministry to raise the matter again at the OAS. “Considering these events, we cannot remain indifferent,” said Pena Nieto.

Kuczynski, a former Wall Street banker with strong globalist and free-trade beliefs, has won support at home for his position on Venezuela even as it has prompted personal attacks from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Vizcarra said Peru’s own experience with authoritarianism in the 1990s, when now-jailed right-wing former President Alberto Fujimori dissolved Congress with the backing of the military, has left an indelible mark on the country.

“We’ve gone through that before and we wouldn’t want to repeat that experience or see fellow countries like Venezuela go through it,” Vizcarra said.

Maduro on Friday railed against what he deemed the meddling in Venezuela’s affairs from right-wing, “fascist” countries.

Reporting By Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino; Additional Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter, Lizbeth Diaz and Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City and Alexandra Ulmer in Quito; Editing by Andrew Hay, Lisa Shumaker and Bill Rigby