Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has pulled out of the CELAC Summit, which takes place today in Buenos Aires, after conservative lawmakers presented a lawsuit against him and Venezuelans in Buenos Aires protested his attendance.
His government issued a statement on Monday afternoon, when he was due to meet Lula da Silva in Argentina, saying that the Venezuelan delegation to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Summit would instead be headed by Foreign Minister, Yván Gil Pinto, who landed in Buenos Aires on Monday afternoon.
Venezuela was a founding member of CELAC and its first summit, in 2011, was hosted in its capital, Caracas.
In its statement, the Venezuelan government said they had been informed of plans to attack him by what they described as “the neo-fascist right-wing movement.”
“Maduro got scared,” tweeted former president Mauricio Macri on Monday evening. “He knows Argentina’s changing.”
Last week, a group of conservative political leaders, intellectuals and journalists presented a lawsuit against the presidents of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua ahead of the summit. Some of them gathered in a protest on Sunday outside the Sheraton Hotel, where the conference will be held.
On January 19, Patricia Bullrich, president of the right-wing PRO Propuesta Republicana (Republican Proposal) party, tweeted: “If Nicolás Maduro comes to Argentina, he should be detained immediately for committing crimes against humanity, just like Pinochet in London, 1998.”
A few days later, in an op-ed in MDZ, she said that she would flag Maduro’s visit to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in order for them to arrest him in Argentina. The US government indicted Maduro on corruption and drug trafficking charges in March 2020, during the Trump administration. Experts ruled out the feasibility of the DEA arresting a foreign president in Argentine soil.
The Argentine government takes the position that since the CELAC is a regional discussion forum, all member states must be able to participate and it cannot pick and choose which presidents to invite. A source with knowledge of the matter pointed out that at previous forums, members of the current opposition had their photos taken with Maduro and Raúl Castro, who was president of Cuba at the time.
The events underscore the countries’ position as a geopolitical faultline in the region. Maduro, the successor of Hugo Chávez, has presided over a political, economic and humanitarian crisis, which analysts blame on both economic mismanagement and crippling U.S. sanctions. Rights organizations say the government has jailed political opponents and made excessive use of force against protesters, including protests in 2017 in which 120 protesters were killed.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, an ally of Maduro and Díaz-Canel, has imprisoned critics and political foes and stifled freedom of speech after hundreds of people were killed in protests that started in 2018. International organizations have stated that the Central American country’s 2021 elections, in which Ortega was elected for a fourth consecutive term, were neither free nor fair. Ortega is not attending the CELAC summit.
Cuba is ruled as a one-party state, and Human Rights Watch’s most recent annual report said that there were over 1,000 political prisoners in the island nation.
All three states espouse socialist and anti-imperialist values and vocally oppose U.S. interventionism in the region, and supporters say they are being singled out for political motives while ignoring similar abuses by U.S. allies.
The Fernández administration has adhered to Argentina’s foreign policy stance of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and has on numerous occasions called for dialogue to solve the crisis in Venezuela.
South American support
On Monday noon, Lula da Silva and Alberto Fernández gave a press conference after a meeting in Casa Rosada. Both addressed the criticism against the presence of Maduro in CELAC, an organization born in 2008 with the intention of counteracting U.S. influence over Latin American economies.
Fernández stressed that he believed dialogue is key to building bridges between the countries, adding that he’s opposed to excluding leaders from international meetings. He gave the example of the 2022 Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, when the Biden administration excluded Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan representatives.
Lula explicitly stated that he hoped to rebuild Brazil’s relationship with Venezuela, and that he opposed the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba. “I’m against the occupation of Russia in Ukrainian territory and, in the same way, I’m against anyone’s intervention in Venezuela,” he said, calling for dialogue and a “civilized” relationship.
He added that he’s expecting to reopen both his embassy in Caracas as the Venezuelan Embassy in Brazil, and soon restart diplomatic relations. “We will help with whatever we can,” he said, referring to the economic and political situation in Venezuela.
Additional reporting by Estefanía Pozzo and Amy Booth