The Lima Group of Latin American countries and Canada has called for a peaceful change in government in Venezuela, without military intervention. They also urged Venezuela's military to support opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president and "not to impede the entry and transit of humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans."
Eleven of the group's 14 members said in a joint statement after meeting in Ottawa - which saw protesters briefly disrupt a closing press conference - that they "reiterate their support for a process of peaceful transition through political and diplomatic means without the use of force." At the same time, the group welcomed into the Lima Group Guaido's "legitimate government of Venezuela" and vowed to "recognize and work with" his representatives in their respective countries.
At a closing press conference, host Chrystia Freeland, Canada's foreign minister, said 34 countries have so far recognised Guaido as Venezuela's interim leader until new elections are held. She pressed the entire international community to join them, and to also freeze the assets of President Nicolas Maduro's "dictatorial regime." Those monies should be placed in the hands of the transition government, she said. Pressed about possible military intervention in Venezuela, Freeland was unequivocal - it is not an option.
"This is a process led by the people of Venezuela in their very brave quest to return their country themselves to democracy in accordance with their own constitution," she said. Peru's Foreign Minister Nestor Popolizio echoed those comments, saying: "We would not consider the use of force." Two women using press credentials to access the event briefly interrupted, unfurling a banner and chanting "Hands off Venezuela" before being escorted away by security. Freeland smiled and remarked that protesting was a right guaranteed by the constitution in Canada, one that "I am sad to say political protesters in Venezuela do not (have)."
Earlier, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged USD 40 million in humanitarian aid for Venezuelans amid the deepening crisis. The bulk of the funds is set to go to "trusted partners" and neighbouring countries to help them support three million refugees that have fled Venezuela, he said. Guaido has accused the military - controlled by President Nicolas Maduro - of planning to divert international humanitarian aid headed for the crisis-torn country.
"We have received information, from the circle close to the high command, who are no longer evaluating if they let it enter or not, but how they will steal it from us," Guaido told reporters in Caracas. "They are going to hijack it to distribute it through the CLAP," he alleged, referring to the socialist government's program to distribute subsidized food boxes to its supporters. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and European Union deputy diplomatic chief Helga Schmid also participated by videoconference in the Lima Group talks.
Guaido, who heads the opposition-controlled National Assembly, addressed the gathering in a video message, saying he looked forward to having "free and fair elections as soon as possible in order to restore democracy to Venezuela." Venezuelans are "very close to reclaiming their freedom," he said. The next Lima Group meeting is due to be hosted by Colombia. Emergency talks at the headquarters of the Organization of American States in Washington will also be held on February 14 to help deliver aid to the country's population facing major shortages of food and medicine.
(With inputs from agencies.)