Venezuela crisis, Colombia peace dominate Latin American summit

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 29, 2016 12:13 PM

By Julia Symmes Cobb

CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) - Venezuela's fast-escalating political crisis and Colombia's stuttering peace process dominated discussions at the Ibero-American Summit on Saturday, despite an official agenda about youth, entrepreneurship and education.

Amid a swing to the political right around the region, Peru President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski led calls for heads of state not to ignore Venezuela's troubles.

Venezuela's socialist government is facing an escalation of opposition protests after electoral authorities suspended a referendum on President Nicolas Maduro's rule that could have led to his departure from office.

"The neighboring country is suffering a tremendous economic crisis and also a crisis of political rights and also I would say human rights," Kuczynski, a former investment banker, told the leaders in the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena.

"There's no eagerness to interfere in what happens in other countries," he said. "But there is eagerness to insure all Latin Americans progress and not regress."

Maduro's popularity has plummeted during a deep economic crisis. Maduro was not in attendance at the summit.

Heads of state and officials from around Latin America, as well as Portugal and Spain, were set to release a statement later on Saturday.

Argentina's foreign minister, Susana Malcorra, applauded a recent announcement that the Vatican will mediate talks between the Venezuelan opposition and the government. Venezuela's strife "occupies us and worries us," she said.

Venezuela, despite having the world's largest oil reserves, is mired in a prolonged recession, with many people skipping meals due to food shortages and soaring prices.

Critics say Maduro, 53, has kept a grip on power by side-lining the legislature, arresting opponents and squashing the referendum. He says foes are seeking to topple him illegally.

Colombia, meanwhile, is scrambling to save a hard-won peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The deal, hammered out over almost four years of difficult negotiations, was narrowly rejected in a plebiscite vote this month. The regional leaders met at the same conference center where the deal was signed in September.

President Juan Manuel Santos has met with the opposition to hear their concerns, and government negotiators are modifying the accord with FARC leadership in Cuba.

"Peace for Colombia will be a reality," Santos said in opening remarks at the conference. "We will not betray the hopes of Colombians or the international community."

Leaders at the summit have repeatedly expressed support for the peace process. The 52-year war has killed nearly a quarter of a million people.

(Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta in Cartagena, Deisy Buitrago in Caracas and Caroline Stauffer in Buenos Aires; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Leslie Adler)