Former Spanish PM’s visit gives boost to Venezuela’s opposition

Felipe González cuts short trip after being denied visit to politicians in jail

 Former  Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez speaks to journalists after a meeting  Lilian Tintori (right)  and other  wives of Venezuelan imprisoned opposition leaders, and  members of the opposition alliance  in Caracas, on Monday. Photograph: Miguel Gutierrez/EPA

Former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez speaks to journalists after a meeting Lilian Tintori (right) and other wives of Venezuelan imprisoned opposition leaders, and members of the opposition alliance in Caracas, on Monday. Photograph: Miguel Gutierrez/EPA

 

Former Spanish prime minister Felipe González has made a short visit to Venezuela to offer support to two jailed politicians in a move which has heartened the country’s opposition and enraged its government.

Mr González, who led Spain’s Socialist Party government between 1982 and 1996, arrived in Caracas on Sunday to meet lawyers and relatives of the city’s mayor, Antonio Ledezma, and former Chacao mayor Leopoldo López.

Mr Ledezma was arrested in February after being accused of plotting a coup; Mr López was imprisoned in February 2014, on charges of instigating violent street demonstrations and is staging a hunger strike.

Mr González, who trained as a lawyer, has said he is helping the two men as an “external advisor” to their legal teams.

“There’s a need for dialogue, to mend, reconcile and rebuild institutions,” Mr González said. Some locals applauded as he walked through the airport’s arrivals zone, reflecting the hope he represents for many who oppose the government of President Nicolás Maduro.

‘Persona non grata’

Before his arrival, however, there had been doubts if Mr González would even be allowed into the country. In April the Venezuelan parliament declared him “persona non grata” after he announced his plans to advise the two prisoners.

Mr Maduro has portrayed Mr González as a meddlesome troublemaker, who is seeking to undermine his government with the help of Colombia and the United States. “The Bogota-Madrid-Miami axis acts desperately, sending famous personalities over here to legitimise their war against Venezuela,” he tweeted on Sunday.

Pro-government politicians staged a number of demonstrations around the country against the González visit.

“Today we are telling former prime minister Felipe González that Venezuela is a free country and it’s not the same as that which was colonised by the Spanish empire 500 years ago,” said the mayor of Sucre, Luis Acuña, at one of these events.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan government supporters have expressed their hostility towards Mr González by using the Twitter hashtag #felipefueradeaqui (“Felipe get out of here”).

Yesterday their wish was granted, when the former Spanish leader unexpectedly cut short his visit after being denied permission to visit the imprisoned Mr López.

Spain has close business links with Venezuela, with the likes of energy firm Repsol, BBVA bank and clothing chain Zara all having invested heavily there. However, political relations between Madrid and Caracas have been tense over the past 15 years. Mr Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, accused former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar of colluding in a 2002 attempt to oust him.

In 2007 Chávez repeated these accusations at an Ibero-American Summit, leading Spain’s King Juan Carlos to tell him to “shut up”.

Although Mr González, like Mr Maduro, comes from a socialist background, the market-friendly social democracy of the former has little in common with the more combative “Bolivarian” style of government in Venezuela.

Boost

Despite the enmity Mr González’s visit generated, he appears to have given Venezuela’s opposition a boost. On Monday he met members of the Table for United Democracy, an opposition platform which has been divided in recent months.

Writing in Caracas daily El Universal, Jean Maninat listed a number of factors he said should encourage unity across the opposition, such as a deteriorating economic situation and, “for the first time, an international community that is more and more concerned about the issue of human rights in the country”.

Opinion polls show support for Mr Maduro has slipped to about 25 per cent. On Sunday he cancelled a trip to Rome to meet Pope Francis, citing illness. However, many observers believe the decision was taken because he feared a papal reprimand over his treatment of the opposition.

Last week former Colombian and Bolivian presidents Andrés Pastrana and Jorge Quiroga appealed to the pope to intervene in Venezuela and secure the release of political prisoners.