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New presidential elections key to solving Venezuelan crisis: Colombian envoy
Published Wednesday, February 19, 2020 6:59PM EST
An opponent to Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro returns a tear gas canister to soldiers who launched it at a small group of civilians and rebel troops gathered outside La Carlota air base in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Venezuelan opposition leader Juan GuaidÃ³ took to the streets with activist Leopoldo Lopez and a small contingent of heavily armed troops early Tuesday in a bold and risky call for the military to rise up and oust socialist leader Nicolas Maduro. (AP / Ariana Cubillos)
OTTAWA -- Fleeing Venezuelans -- all 1.4 million of them -- will always be welcome in his country, says Colombia's ambassador to Canada, but his real hope is that they are able to one day return to their own free and democratic homeland.
That overarching goal must drive Thursday's meeting of the Lima Group that Canada is hosting, said Colombian envoy Frederico Hoyos.
Hoyos is calling on the Lima Group to make a renewed push for a new presidential election in Venezuela, one that he says would likely end in the defeat of the country's dictator president, Nicolas Maduro.
"We're certain that people would like to go back to their homes once there is stability. Venezuela is one of the richest countries in Latin America and the world," Hoyos said in an interview.
"We don't see a reason for this happening again once the regime is gone. People will go back to their homes."
The United Nations estimates that six million Venezuelans will have fled their country by the year's end, as its economic, health and education systems collapse, and no country is feeling the effects of the exodus more than neighbouring Colombia.
The exodus has fuelled concern among some UN officials that the migration out of Venezuela and into neighbouring countries might be irreversible as new migrants start new lives and Maduro clings to power in their hollowed-out country. Some fear that Venezuela, once oil-rich and prosperous, might be on a slide towards becoming a failed state.
Hoyos flatly rejects that assessment and maintains Venezuela's decline can be reversed with a peaceful and democratic transition -- one that Thursday's Lima Group meeting must back with a powerful declaration.
"He has already been defeated once -- the last presidential election was a fraud and he lost," said Hoyos.
Canada and dozens of other countries recognize opposition legislator Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader, and view Maduro as an illegitimate president who stole his country's last election in 2018.
Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne is hosting the gathering of foreign ministers from the coalition of Western Hemisphere countries, minus the United States, in Gatineau, Que., near Ottawa. Guaido, who was recently in Ottawa as part of a multi-country tour of Europe and the U.S., is not expected to attend the meeting.
Canada last hosted the Lima Group one year ago, and that meeting resulted in a call to Venezuela's military to peacefully switch sides.
That never happened and the pro-democracy momentum appeared to stall.
So how is a peaceful, free and fair democratic election, monitored by the outside world, likely to take place with Maduro still clinging to power?
Hoyos and others, including Champagne, are counting on the broader international backing that Guaido was able to win, especially in Europe, whose countries are not part of the Lima Group coalition, to eventually persuade the Venezuelan people and a reluctant military to force a new presidential election.
"It's critical that the military is backing this internal process," Hoyos said.
"We understand this might be frustrating for people because that might take time, and this might look like it's going on forever," he said. But getting dozens of countries to back the Venezuelan opposition was a painstaking process, and Thursday's meeting will be another step in keeping the momentum moving forward.
Colombia has suffered the brunt of the crisis but has not turned its back on its Venezuelan brethren, said Hoyos.
The government has extended Colombian citizenship to fleeing Venezuelan children so they can go to school and access health care, he said.
But that generosity has come with a cost: Colombia is coping with rising unemployment, poverty and crime.
"If Venezuela regains democracy and stability and Colombia once again starts trading with Venezuela as we have been in the past -- it's our first and most important trading partner in the world -- the Colombian economy will have important growth," said Hoyos.
"Despite the challenges, Colombia is still growing."
Canada has also been an important partner in the effort to oust Maduro and bring stability to the region, he added.
"Canada has been a strong ally, a steady partner," he said. "(We are) proud to stand with Canada in this struggle together."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 19, 2020.