El Salvador ordered Venezuela’s diplomats to leave the country in a challenge to their president Nicolas Maduro, prompting his government to respond by expelling Salvadoran envoys in Caracas on Sunday.
El Salvador under its new President Nayib Bukele is one of more than 50 countries that have declared Maduro’s government in Venezuela illegitimate.
They have switched their recognition to his lead rival, national assembly speaker Juan Guaido, who has declared himself Venezuela’s acting president.
Bukele said El Salvador had ordered “the diplomatic corps from the regime of Nicolas Maduro” to leave the country within 48 hours, in a statement posted on his Twitter account late Saturday.
In response, the Venezuelan foreign ministry said in a statement on Sunday it had declared each of the Salvadoran diplomatic staff in Caracas “persona non grata” and gave them 48 hours to leave.
Maduro’s leftist government has jailed opposition leaders and is accused of using torture and arbitrary arrests as it struggles to hold on to power amid a collapsing economy.
But his government still has support from Russia and China.
Before his election in June, Bukele said he would maintain a “distant” relationship with Caracas and close ties with the United States, Maduro’s biggest diplomatic foes.
US Ambassador Ronald Johnson reacted warmly to El Salvador’s decision.
“We applaud the government of President Nayib Bukele for ensuring that El Salvador is on the right side of history,” he said on Twitter.
US President Donald Trump was one of the first leaders to recognize Guaido when the opposition leader mounted an unsuccessful bid to oust Maduro in April.
A top Spanish court on Monday said it had denied a US request to extradite Venezuela’s former military intelligence chief on drug trafficking charges, instead ordering his release.
“The Audiencia National has denied the extradition of General Hugo Armando Carvajal,” said Spain’s top criminal court, which handles such requests.
The judges decided to release Carvajal, who served as head of military intelligence under the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and has been held in provisional detention since his arrest in Madrid in mid-April.
Details of the full judgement will not be published until Tuesday, said the court which examined the case last week.
“We are very satisfied but out of prudence, we are not going to comment on the decision until we have the full judgement,” Carvajal’s lawyer Maria Dolores de Arguelles told AFP by telephone.
“We only have the judgement on his release and I am personally going to the Estremera prison to tell him,” she said, indicating that he would be released from the facility on the outskirts of Madrid later in the day.
Known as “El Pollo” (the Chicken), Carvajal was stripped of his rank after coming out in support of Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s acting president in February.
He then fled by boat to the Dominican Republic before relocating to Spain where he was arrested in April.
Carvajal has long been sought by US Treasury officials who suspect him of providing support to drug trafficking by the FARC guerrilla group in Colombia.
In an indictment filed in New York in 2011, Carvajal was accused of coordinating the transport of more than 5.6 tonnes of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico in 2006 that was ultimately destined for the United States.
If convicted, Carvajal could face between 10 years to life in prison, the US Justice Department said in April following his arrest.
Carvajal has denied any “links to drug trafficking and the FARC”, Spanish judicial sources said at the time.
Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said Thursday the government would meet with Norwegian mediators in an effort to restart talks with the opposition aimed at resolving the country’s political crisis.
Arreaza told reporters in Caracas that the government was seeking changes to the talks mechanism before it would return to the negotiating table.
“There will be contact with the envoys and we will surely be able to reestablish the dialogue with a re-thought mechanism,” the foreign minister said.
“We have to have a mechanism that guarantees peace and coexistence,” he added, but gave no details of the changes the government were seeking.
On Wednesday, opposition leader Juan Guaido revealed that Norwegian officials were in the country in a bid to restart the talks.
Negotiations to end the political crisis — sparked when Guaido pronounced himself acting president in January — began in Oslo in May.
But President Nicolas Maduro called off the talks a week ago in response to new United States sanctions against his government.
Arreaza insisted that Maduro had merely “implemented a pause” in the talks and that they had not broken down.
“We have not withdrawn from the process of dialogue with the political opposition,” said the minister, a key member of Maduro’s negotiating team.
Maduro’s administration says the opposition is divided between those who want a peaceful change of government and those who want a foreign military intervention.
Talks began in Oslo in May before being moved to Barbados where several rounds have been held since the start of July.
In addition to the political standoff, Venezuela is suffering one of the worst economic crises in its history with a quarter of its 30 million population in need of aid, according to the United Nations.
Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido warned President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday that any attempts to bring forward parliamentary elections would end in “disaster” for the government.
Elections to renew the National Assembly, the only branch of government under opposition control, are set for December 2020.
But the Constituent Assembly, a rival body created by the Maduro regime and given extraordinary powers superseding the National Assembly, has hinted at the possibility of ordering early elections.
Such a maneuver could threaten the opposition’s hold on the National Assembly and with it Guaido’s claim as head of the legislature to be the country’s legitimate president.
But Guaido insisted it would backfire, further isolating Maduro, who has so far withstood opposition challenges to his presidency with the support of the military.
“What would happen if the regime dared to — and it could — bring forward an irregular convocation for elections without any conditions?” said Guaido.
“They will drown in contradictions, in isolation — they will drown in disaster.”
Constituent Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, the most powerful regime figure after Maduro, admitted on Monday the move was a “counter-attack” after the United States increased its sanctions on the government.
Venezuela has been locked in a political crisis since the legislature branded Maduro a “usurper” in January over his controversial re-election last year in a poll widely denounced as rigged.
As the head of the National Assembly, Guaido demanded Maduro step down and declared himself acting president in a move recognized by more than 50 countries.
The government and the opposition have engaged in Norwegian-mediated talks but those negotiations appear blocked over the opposition’s demand that Maduro step down so new elections can be held.
In the meantime, the regime has stepped up pressure on opposition legislators by stripping 25 of them of their parliamentary immunity over their alleged support for a failed April uprising instigated by Guaido.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said these moves were “another direct attack on the only democratically elected body in Venezuela.”
US President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton urged the “international community to hold the tyrant Maduro accountable.”
Delegations from both sides arrived in Barbados Monday morning to revive discussions after a previous round in Norway petered out.
“I am very optimistic… Today they had a five-hour session, and I think that step by step, with strategic patience, we can find a path to peace,” Maduro said in a broadcast on the state television channel VTV.
Without giving details, he said that a six-point agenda was being discussed with “the whole country in mind.”
“If you work with goodwill and there is no American interventionism, I am sure that we will reach an agreement,” said Maduro, who blames the United States for fanning the crisis.
The Barbados talks will be the third round since the Oslo talks in May, although Guaido had originally said last Tuesday there were no plans to re-open talks with Maduro’s “murderous dictatorship” following the death of an officer in custody over an alleged coup plot.
The suspicious death of retired naval officer Rafael Acosta Arevalo had sparked international condemnation.
Guaido said Sunday he wants the talks to lead them towards Maduro’s departure from the presidency he has held since 2013 to a transitional government, and then “free elections with international observers”.
Ravaged by crises
Some members of the opposition oppose the Barbados talks, fearing they may reinvigorate Maduro, but Enrique Marquez, vice president of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, said they are the best option.
“A violent solution… could generate loss of governance even for a new government,” he told AFP.
Along with the negotiations in Barbados, Guaido had a closed-door meeting on Monday in the capital Caracas with Enrique Iglesias, the European Union’s special advisor for Venezuela.
Afterwards, Iglesias met with Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez.
“Iglesias has confirmed his commitment to the dialogue process,” Rodriguez said on Twitter.
Oil-rich Venezuela has been ravaged by five years of recession marked by shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities, and the economic woes have been exacerbated by the political crisis.
Delegations representing the Venezuelan rivals met face-to-face in Oslo for the first time in late May, in a process begun two weeks earlier under Norwegian auspices to find a solution to the nation’s multiple crises.
Maduro has repeatedly said that the dialogue will continue with the opposition “for peace in Venezuela.”
Guaido has called Maduro a “usurper” for staying in power after a 2018 election widely dismissed as a sham.
Meanwhile, Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo stressed in a TV interview that military intervention is not the solution to the Venezuelan crisis, and offered his country’s assistance in reaching a negotiated solution.
The UN rights chief warned Thursday that many of the thousands killed in Venezuela security operations since 2018 likely constituted “executions”, and urged Caracas to dissolve its special police force.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who visited Venezuela last month, pointed out in a fresh report that thousands of people, mostly young men, had been killed in alleged confrontations with state forces in the country in recent years.
“The incidence of alleged extrajudicial killings by security forces… has been shockingly high,” Bachelet’s office said in a statement.
In 2018, the government registered 5,287 killings, purportedly for “resistance to authority” during such operations, between January 1 and May 19 this year, another 1,569 similar killings were registered.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that many of these killings constitute extrajudicial executions committed by the security forces,” the report said, especially pointing a finger at Venezuela’s police special forces (FAES).
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) “is concerned that the authorities may be using FAES, and possibly other security forces, as part of a policy of social control. These killings warrant immediate investigation to ensure accountability of perpetrators and guarantees of non-recurrence,” the report said.
In the report, which Bachelet is set to present to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Friday, she urged the government in Caracas to “dissolve FAES.”
She also urged it to “establish an impartial and independent national mechanism, with the support of the international community, to investigate extrajudicial executions during security operations, ensure accountability of perpetrators and redress for victims.”
Bachelet’s report also decried a wide range of other grave rights violations in Venezuela, which is caught in an economic crisis and a political standoff between President Nicolas Maduro’s government and National Assembly leader Juan Guaido.
The opposition leader, Guaido, declared himself interim president earlier this year and has been recognised by the United States and more than 50 other countries.
The oil-rich country is also suffering from hyperinflation and shortages of basic goods from food to medicine, a crisis that has forced millions to flee.
The report concluded that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that grave violations of economic and social rights, including the rights to food and health, have been committed in Venezuela.”
It also said that “as the economic crisis deepened, the authorities began using social programmes in a discriminatory manner, based on political grounds, and as an instrument of social control.”
The report also voiced criticism of sanctions imposed on Venezuela, saying they were “exacerbating further the effects of the economic crisis, and thus the humanitarian situation.”
Thursday’s report charged that Venezuela’s government over the past decade, and especially since 2016, had implemented a strategy “aimed at neutralising, repressing and criminalising political opponents and people critical of the government.”
In the statement, the rights office pointed to a series of laws, policies and practices in Venezuela that it said had “restricted the democratic space, dismantled institutional checks and balances, and allowed patterns of grave violations.”
The report also noted that as of May 31 this year, 793 people remained in arbitrary detention in the country and that so far this year 22 members of parliament, including Guaido, had been stripped of their parliamentary immunity.
At least 23 inmates were killed and 14 police wounded in clashes at a jail in western Venezuela on Friday, an NGO that defends prisoner rights said.
The clashes broke out when special forces (FAES) police attempted to rescue some visitors who had been taken hostage Thursday by inmates at the police station jail in Acarigua.
“This morning (authorities) sent the FAES and there was a clash. The detainees had weapons, they shot at the police. Apparently they also exploded two grenades,” Carlos Nieto, director of the Una Ventana a la Libertad NGO, told AFP.
An internal police report, quoted by the NGO, said several officers were wounded by shrapnel.
“We can confirm that there are 23 dead detainees and 14 wounded police,” said Nieto.
The prisons ministry didn’t comment on the incident, saying police station jails aren’t under its control.
Violence is a problem in such detention facilities, where inmates are supposed to be held for a maximum of 48 hours, Una Ventana de la Libertad said.
There are around 500 of them in the country, holding 55,000 people even though their total capacity is just 8,000, the NGO added.
Venezuela has one of the worst records for prison violence in the region.
In March 2018, 68 inmates died in a fire at a police jail in the northern city of Valencia.
And in August 2017, a riot at a facility in the southern Amazonas state left 37 prisoners dead.