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story.lead_photo.caption Foreign ministers of the Lima Group regional bloc gather Friday in Lima, Peru, for discussions on Venezuela’s political crisis.

LIMA, Peru -- Diplomats from a dozen Latin American countries and Canada on Friday urged President Nicolas Maduro to abstain from being sworn in for a second term and cede power until new elections can be held, saying it is the only way to restore democracy in Venezuela.

The strong rebuke from the Lima Group urging Maduro to hand over power to the opposition-controlled National Assembly comes days before his inauguration on Thursday to a six-year term widely rejected as illegitimate.

Even before announcing its decision, the gathering in Peru's capital prompted a sharp response from Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, who said the coalition is taking orders directly from U.S. President Donald Trump, who Caracas frequently accuses of spearheading an economic war against the country.

"What a display of humiliating subordination!" Arreaza said on Twitter.

A once-wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is in crisis after two decades of socialist rule, marked by hyperinflation that makes it difficult for people to afford scarce food and medicine. An estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans have migrated from their country since 2015, according to the United Nations.

The Lima Group formed more than a year ago to advocate for a solution to Venezuela's crisis that threatens regional instability.

Immediately after Maduro's May 20 re-election, the coalition said it refused to recognize the results, decrying the vote as failing to meet "international standards of a democratic, free, just and transparent process."

Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico are among the group's members. Peruvian Foreign Minister Nestor Popolizio recently had said his country would propose that Lima Group members break diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

However, the political make-up of the coalition has recently shifted, most notably in Mexico.

The newly elected government of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is a member of the coalition but abstained from the vote.

His administration has adopted a policy of non-intervention, and Maduro traveled to Obrador's inauguration, meeting privately with the new Mexican leader.

The United States is not formally a member of the Lima Group, but U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo participated in the meeting via video conference.

It follows Pompeo's recent visit to Latin America during which he attended the inauguration of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro and then stopped in Colombia to meet with President Ivan Duque. Both Bolsonaro and Duque signaled a united stance against Maduro's government aligned with the United States.

The Trump administration considers Maduro's government a "dictatorship," sanctioning roughly 70 top officials and blocking U.S. banks from doing business with Venezuela, putting a financial strangle-hold on the cash-strapped country.

Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, called the optics of Pompeo's presence in Friday's meeting "terrible."

The Lima Group was created to showcase regional concern for the crisis among Latin American countries and Pompeo's involvement furthers a perception that the U.S. has been quietly directing its moves, he said.

Rather, the coalition should push for neutral actors to open dialogues between Maduro's government and opposition leaders, finding ways to reduce mounting international pressure and reaching a peaceful resolution in Venezuela, Ramsey said.

A Section on 01/05/2019

Print Headline: Maduro urged to step aside


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