OTTAWA _ Canada will host a meeting of Western Hemisphere countries next Monday to address the political and economic crisis in Venezuela.
The Lima Group, a coalition of more than a dozen countries in the Americas, minus the United States, was formed in August 2017 to address Venezuela's growing backslide into authoritarianism. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland confirmed its next session will be in Ottawa.
Canada needs to play a leading role in the Lima Group because the crisis in Venezuela is unfolding in Canada's global backyard, she said.
"This is our neighbourhood,'' said Freeland said Monday. "For Canadians, we have a very direct interest in what happens in our hemisphere. That is why we have been so active and will continue to be so active.''
The group has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's interim president, saying President Nicolas Maduro's continuing dictatorial rule is creating an economic and humanitarian crisis that has swelled beyond his country's borders. Maduro was populist leader Hugo Chavez's vice-president and came to power with Chavez's death in 2013.
Freeland praised the role of Canadian diplomats in Caracas, who helped get the country's opposition parties to coalesce behind the 35-year-old Guaido.
The Canadian Press interviewed senior Canadian government officials who have described Canada's role in aiding democratic forces to help rescue the once oil-rich country from the economic and political spiral that has forced three million Venezuelans from their homes.
Watch: Maduro says troops are ready to defend 'national sovereignty.' Story continues below.
Freeland said Monday's talks will focus in part on the refugee crisis has that has forced a flood of displaced people into neighbouring Colombia and Brazil.
"Some of the stories of people coming across the border, unaccompanied children for example, in terrible conditions are really heart-wrenching,'' said Freeland. "We've seen with Syria the way in which a refugee crisis can have much broader destabilizing impacts.''
The Lima Group has also called for Maduro's ouster, saying Guaido is the only "legitimately elected'' Venezuelan leader after he won control of its National Assembly.
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On Jan. 10, Maduro was sworn in as president with support of countries such as Cuba, Russia and China. The Lima Group denounced Maduro as illegitimate and Freeland said, "the Maduro regime is now fully entrenched as a dictatorship.''
Freeland has branded the rise of authoritarian leaders as a major foreign-policy challenge and she suggested Monday that Canada needs to work against it in the Americas.
"Our hemisphere has been going in the right direction and it is really important to stand up or to speak up for democracy and human rights.''
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spoken to Colombian President Ivan Duque and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to affirm their support of Guaido in recent days. On Sunday, Trudeau and Sanchez also agreed on "the imperative for new, free and fair elections in Venezuela,'' according to Trudeau's office.
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