US vice president meets Venezuelan opposition ahead of summit

Lima (Peru) (AFP) –


US Vice President Mike Pence met with Venezuelan opposition figures Friday shortly after he arrived in Peru ahead of a summit with Latin American leaders, reporters traveling with him said.

The high-level gathering in Lima on Friday and Saturday is expected to focus in part on the crisis in Venezuela and regional measures to further isolate Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his administration.

Maduro was not invited to the summit -- but said he would not attend.

Pence met with Julio Borges, a Venezuelan opposition lawmaker and former speaker of the National Assembly, David Smolansky, former mayor of the city of El Hatillo, Carlos Vecchio, political coordinator of the Popular Will party he co-founded with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, and Antonio Ledezma, former mayor of Caracas.

US President Donald Trump -- who cancelled his trip to the summit to supervise his country's response to a suspected poison gas attack in Syria -- has called Maduro a "dictator" and unleashed sanctions against the Venezuelan leader and officials.

More than a dozen Latin American countries have also strongly criticized Maduro, accusing him of trampling upon democracy by sidelining the opposition and appointing a super-legislative body over the heads of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

The countries, collectively named the Lima Group after the location of their first declaration, have vowed to not recognize the results of a May 20 Venezuelan presidential election that the opposition says Maduro has rigged in his favor.

According to the US State Department, the United States is providing $16 million in extra funding for humanitarian assistance for Venezuelans who have fled as economic conditions worsen. Part of the funding is going to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.

Hyperinflation, scarcities of basic food and medicine, and skyrocketing violence are gripping Venezuela, prompting a swelling exodus of its citizens that is increasingly concerning the UN.

The International Organization for Migration says nearly one million Venezuelans have left the country over the past two years. Many head to Brazil, Colombia and Panama, and often beyond.