Strained relations between Venezuela and Spain took a turn for the worse on Tuesday, when Venezuelan lawmakers officially banned former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González from entering the country.
Acting on a petition from the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV), the National Assembly voted to declare González persona non grata after the former Socialist leader announced last month that he would publicly defend opposition leaders who are being held in jail.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has accused González of trying to overthrow his government
The unprecedented measure comes after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro accused González of trying to overthrow his government.
In response, Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo has called the country’s ambassador in Caracas, Antonio Pérez Hernández, to return to Madrid for “consultations” – a vigorous form of protest in diplomatic circles.
On March 23, González told EL PAÍS that he would defend opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who are both being held in a military prison outside Caracas, because he was concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in the Latin American country.
Since that announcement, supporters of López, who is a former mayor of the Caracas suburb of Chacao, have been anxiously awaiting Gonzalez’s arrival.
“I can only say that former Prime Minister González will be complying with Article 150 of the Criminal Code as an unpaid legal councilor,” said López’s lawyer Juan Carlos Gutiérrez on Monday.
“Apart from other work that Felipe González has in the country, we hope his presence will lead to Leopoldo López’s freedom.”
López, 42, is on trial after he was jailed in February 2014 on conspiracy and sedition charges in connection to violent anti-government protests, in which more than 40 people were killed across Venezuela.
Ledezma, a top leader of the Democratic Action (AD) party, was arrested in February after he signed a public petition calling for Maduro’s resignation and new elections.
Speaker files defamation suits against news sites
National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello – who was not present for Tuesday's vote declaring former Spanish PM Felipe González persona non grata – has filed defamation lawsuits against the Caracas daily El Nacional and the news websites lapatilla.com and TalCual, which is run by former Marxist guerrilla Teodoro Petkoff.
All three have been reporting on the alleged statements given by Cabello’s former bodyguard, Leasmy Salazar, who is cooperating with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Washington.
TalCual, which had been in print until last month, has had to answer to at least 10 libel lawsuits filed by government officials.
Salazar, who has been in a witness protection program since he defected to the United States, has reportedly accused Cabello of being a top member of the Soles drug cartel – an organization responsible for shipping cocaine to the United States and Europe.
Petkoff, a Socialist leader who ran for president on numerous occasions in the 1980s, was last Thursday announced the winner of the Ortega y Gasset prize for journalism, which is awarded by EL PAÍS. He is prohibited from leaving Venezuela.
President Maduro has accused González, as well as the current conservative Popular Party (PP) government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of being part of an international conspiracy to overthrow his administration.
While Tuesday’s decision by the National Assembly is non-binding, Venezuelan government officials have the final say on who is allowed to enter the country.
The PCV forms part of Maduro’s coalition, which is in control of Venezuela’s parliament.
During an address from Barcelona, the capital of the Venezuelan state of Anzoátegui, Maduro said he would adopt the necessary measures to denounce the Spanish government in international forums for “financing terrorism” against his country.
He reiterated his accusations that Rajoy was “a racist” and reminded his supporters that those close to the Spanish leader are “practically in jail for corruption.”
“I have had patience with Rajoy’s bandits,” he said. “The people of Spain, whom we admire and cherish, are not to blame for that criminal prime minister they have.”
Spain’s foreign affairs minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, announced in Congress that he had decided to recall the Spanish ambassador in Caracas on the basis of what he described as “intolerable statements” made against Spain by the Venezuelan officials, and in particular Maduro.
“The terms used by the authorities are completely unacceptable,” Margallo said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Spain’s Diplomatic Information Office (OID) released a statement expressing its “complete rejection of the rise in insults, falsehoods and threats aimed at Spain and its institutions, against the prime minister of the Spanish government and against former leaders Felipe González and José María Aznar.” The statement added that it found “accusations regarding a supposed support for terrorist activities especially intolerable,” and that they were “particularly offensive for a country such as Spain, which has suffered the scourge of terrorism for many years,” in reference to Basque separatist group ETA’s decades-long violent campaign.
The people of Spain, whom we admire and cherish, are not to blame for that criminal prime minister they have” President Maduro
The Foreign Affairs Ministry has already called the Venezuelan ambassador to account in Madrid over Maduro’s insults against Rajoy. As such, that gesture – which not only failed to stop the insults, but saw them increase – could not be repeated by Margallo.
The minister also suggested in Congress that the “verbal escalation” of the attacks by the authorities in Caracas against Spain are a smokescreen aimed at distracting from the country’s internal problems, and stated that the government has always dealt with Venezuela “within the framework of national and international law, courtesy and institutional respect.”
A response is expected from Caracas this afternoon, which may include the reciprocal action of recalling its ambassador. Or it may opt to increase the pressure – the only problem with the latter course of action being that there are few options left, apart from a complete break in relations.