Right wing Latin American presidents launch new regional bloc

Santiago (AFP) –


Colombia's President Ivan Duque said Friday he had discussed with several Latin American counterparts the possibility of offering asylum to Venezuelan servicemen who desert President Nicolas Maduro's regime.

Duque said the initiative -- which he said could spark a "domino effect" to draw power away from Maduro's regime -- was discussed with Chile's Sebastian Pinera and other Latin American leaders on the sidelines of a meeting to launch a new regional bloc.

Seven right wing South American presidents -- including Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and Colombia's Ivan Duque -- gathered in Santiago to launch the new regional Forum for the Progress of South America (PROSUR).

Pinera and Duque were behind the idea of creating a new bloc to replace UNASUR, a largely defunct organization created in 2008 by late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and his leftist Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The move came at a time when many Latin American countries were led by leftist governments, a trend reversed in recent years.

"It's a good day for collaboration, dialogue, mutual understanding and integration in South America, because for more than five years the presidents of South America have not had the opportunity to meet," said Pinera.

Among the "essential conditions" for joining the bloc are "the full validity of democracy" -- which rules out Venezuela, which was not invited to the meeting. Most of the leaders present had already dismissed Maduro as illegitimate and recognize his opposition rival Juan Guaido as interim president.

The organization will be "phased in" and will have a "flexible, lightweight, inexpensive structure with clear operating rules and a simple decision making mechanism that will advance concrete agreements," a statement said.

Uruguay and Bolivia, ruled by leftist governments, sent representatives to the meeting but did not join the bloc.

Duque told Channel 23 television that widespread asylum for Venezuelan troops "is an issue we have been talking to several governments about after the events of February 23," when Maduro's forces blocked humanitarian aid from entering Venezuela.

Duque said he hoped to provoke a "massive movement of troops" from Maduro's powerful army.

Duque said that up to now Colombia has given shelter to 1,200 Venezuelan military deserters.