The Lima Group of nations on Monday said it would take Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro to the International Criminal Court and that it was more resolved than ever to see a democratic transition in the country. But the influential bloc of countries stopped short of imposing new sanctions or taking other steps that might rattle the regime in Caracas after weeks of unrest.
Monday’s meeting of the Lima Group, its 11th, was attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Venezuela’s interim President Juan Guaidó. And there were expectations that the bloc of largely Latin American countries might come out swinging after Venezuela violently stopped aid convoys on the Colombia-Venezuela border over the weekend. The group condemned Maduro’s actions and said its commitment to a democratic transition in the country was now “irreversible.”
But the communiqué, which was read by Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo, was likely to disappoint some in the Venezuelan opposition who were hoping for more forceful measures — and perhaps even tacit acknowledgment that diplomacy and sanctions aren’t enough.
Earlier in the day, Pence addressed the group, asking it to seize Venezuela’s oil assets and hand them over to Guaidó’s representatives. He also asked the region to revoke visas of Maduro officials. While Colombia, Canada and Panama have rolled out sanctions, others in the region have not.
“There can be no bystanders in Venezuela’s struggle for freedom,” Pence said.
Meanwhile, the group also said it had received credible reports that Guaidó’s life is in danger and warned Maduro’s regime that there would be serious consequences if anything happened to him or his family.
Trujillo said Maduro would be “held responsible for any violent action against Guaidó, against his wife or against his family, which would not be just another crime.“ He added that any violence against the interim president would force the Lima Group “to act collectively” in response.
While the Lima Group agreed to recognize Guaidó’s representatives according to each nation’s “internal procedures” there were no concrete actions specified in the statement.
The United States has already slapped sanctions on more than 50 current and former Venezuelan officials, including Maduro. And in January, Washington essentially blocked Venezuelan oil exports, funneling most oil revenue to escrow accounts until Guaidó effectively takes control. On Monday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed more sanctions on four governors who back Maduro.
The high-profile meeting comes after Maduro shocked many in the international community over the weekend by using force to stop the delivery of humanitarian aid from Colombia and Brazil. The ensuing clashes left hundreds injured and a handful dead, mainly in an indigenous community in southern Venezuela.
Pence said Washington was undeterred and would continue positioning aid depots in the region for the day when the help could be delivered. He also pledged $56 million — in addition to the estimated $140 million already spent — to support countries that have been receiving Venezuelan migrants.
Guaidó, Maduro’s 35-year-old political challenger, addressed the Lima Group for the first time on Monday. He asked for a minute of silence to honor the dead and then urged member states to take on Maduro, who he said represented a threat to the region.
“Today, the Maduro regime thinks that blocking humanitarian aid was a victory, they are dancing in Caracas on the graves of indigenous people,” Guaidó said. “They think that by normalizing the crisis they can hold on to power.”
Maduro has suggested the aid — much of it donated by the United States and transported to Colombia on U.S. military aircraft — is part of a larger plot to topple his administration. He has also blamed the country’s economic woes, including food and medicine shortages, on U.S. sanctions and an “economic blockade.”
Guaidó said the weekend’s events, where the world watched aid trucks blocked at the border and then torched, proved Maduro’s lie.
“The world knows who’s putting up the obstacles to a peaceful and democratic transition for Venezuela,” he said.
He also accused the government of relying on paramilitary groups, Colombian guerrillas and gangs of convicts to repress the Venezuelan people, saying Maduro had turned the country into a “sanctuary” for terrorists.
In an impassioned speech that received a standing ovation, Guaidó said the bloc needed to send a strong message, suggesting that if member nations had reacted more forcefully in 2015, when Maduro neutered the opposition-led congress, or in 2017, when negotiations broke down, that lives could have been saved this weekend.
Monday’s meeting comes as some believed the Lima Group might accept the need for military force to unseat Maduro. But early in the day, Peru’s Assistant Foreign Minister Hugo de Zela Martínez poured cold water on the notion.
“The use of force, in any of its forms, is unacceptable,” he said. “The use of force is not a solution for what’s happening in Venezuela.”
Even so, Martínez said the weekend’s events — and the burning aid truck — had put Maduro’s brutality in plain view. “There’s now no doubt that the dictatorship has no limits when it comes to the repression of its people,” he said.
Martínez said the Lima Group should keep pushing for a negotiated solution to the crisis — but that those negotiations must focus on Maduro stepping down and the calling of “free, fair and just elections.”
“We don’t want to waste our time with meetings that have no clear goals,” he said.
Venezuela has been marred in political turmoil since Jan. 23, when Guaidó, as the head of congress, said it was his constitutional duty to assume the presidency after Maduro stayed in power through fraudulent elections. More than 50 countries, including most of Latin America and a large part of Europe, recognize Guaidó as president.
Maduro says the U.S. and the Lima Group are engaged in an illegal attempt to topple his administration, and that he has the right to rule through 2025.
Pence and President Donald Trump have said that won’t happen. On Monday, the vice president, once again, suggested that Maduro’s days are numbered.
“What brings us together today is the recognition, by all the nations gathered here, that Nicolás Maduro is a usurper with no legitimate claim to power, and Nicolás Maduro must go,” he said.
“I believe with all my heart: The day is coming soon when Venezuela’s long nightmare will end, when Venezuela will once more be free, when her people will see a new birth of freedom, in a nation reborn to libertad,” he said.
Guaidó crossed into Colombia, defying a travel ban, to oversee the weekend aid effort. He’s said he will be returning to Venezuela to continue leading the country, even as experts warn that he will likely be more vulnerable than ever to detention and other punitive measures.
After their speeches Monday, as the Lima Group deliberated, Pence and Guaidó met with about three dozen Venezuelan exiles.
“This sacrifice that we’ve made, and all Venezuelans have made ... are not going to be in vain,” Guaidó reassured them. “ We are going to succeed. The only way back is the way to your homes.”
El Nuevo Herald Venezuela reporter Antonio Maria Delgado contributed to this report.
This story was originally published February 25, 2019 9:25 AM.