ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay – Argentine President Mauricio Macri, in his first trip abroad since assuming office, inserted himself into an international dispute by calling for the release of prisoners in Venezuela that human rights groups say are being held for political reasons.
Speaking at the Mercosur summit in Asunción, Paraguay, Macri called on Venezuela to respect its citizens’ democratic rights. The move came 11 days after Macri took office and two weeks after Venezuela’s opposition won control of congress for the first time since 1999. Opposition lawmakers have said one of their priorities is freeing prisoners including Leopoldo López, the former mayor of a district of Caracas who they say was unjustly imprisoned.
“I want to expressly call on all the presidents of the members states of Mercosur for the swift liberation of political prisoners in Venezuela,” Macri said. “In Mercosur, we can’t allow political persecution for ideological reasons or illegitimate imprisonment for thinking differently.”
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez, standing in for President Nicolás Maduro, accused Macri of double standards and said he was defending the violent perpetrators of protests last year that left at least 43 people dead.
“You are meddling in Venezuela’s affairs. You are defending this political violence,” Rodríguez said, holding up a photo of a man wielding a bazooka that she said was an opposition protester.
While the governments of Brazil and Argentina insisted after a meeting between Macri and President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia on Dec. 4 that their positions on Venezuela are similar, Rousseff on Monday was more cautious than Macri. She didn’t mention political prisoners and, instead, congratulated Maduro for the democratic nature of the legislative elections carried out Dec. 6.
In a closing statement, Mercosur called on all its member states to adhere to a 2005 protocol on human rights. Venezuela is the only member of the bloc that hasn’t yet signed up.
On the economic front, Macri urged Mercosur, whose founding members were Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, to modernize and accelerate a long-delayed effort to sign a trade deal with the European Union. He also thanked members of the trade bloc for their support in backing Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands.
Mercosur’s closing statement made no specific mention of the EU accord, though it did call for a meeting to discuss improving relations with the Pacific Alliance, a trade bloc comprised of Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico.
© 2015, Bloomberg News