Venezuela crisis, Colombia peace dominate Latin American summit
By Julia Symmes Cobb
CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) - Venezuela's fast-escalating political crisis and Colombia's stuttering peace process looked certain to dominate the Ibero-American Summit on Saturday rather than an official agenda about youth, entrepreneurship and education.
Amid a swing to the political right around the region, Peru's president and former investment banker Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was leading calls to put Venezuela at the top of the agenda.
The oil-rich country's socialist government is facing an escalation of opposition protests after electoral authorities suspended a referendum on President Nicolas Maduro's rule that could have led to his departure from office.
Maduro, 53, narrowly won election to succeed Hugo Chavez in 2013 but has seen his popularity plummet during a deep economic crisis. He was due to attend the summit briefly on Saturday, organizers and a Venezuelan government source said.
Heads of state and officials from around Latin America, as well as Portugal and Spain, were attending the meeting in the coastal humidity of colonial Cartagena and were due to release a statement later on Saturday.
Venezuela, despite having the world's largest oil reserves, is mired in a prolonged recession worsened by currency depreciation and low oil prices, with many skipping meals due to shortages and soaring prices.
Critics say Maduro has kept a grip on power by side-lining the legislature, arresting opponents and leaning on compliant institutions to squash the referendum.
He says foes are seeking to topple him illegally.
The summit's host Colombia, meanwhile, is scrambling to save a hard-won peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The deal, hammered out over almost four years of difficult negotiations, was rejected in a plebiscite vote this month by less than half a percentage point. The regional leaders met at the same conference center where the deal was signed just over a month ago.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who was reelected in 2014 on a platform focused on achieving peace, has held meetings with the opposition in a bid to modify the deal enough to satisfy critics.
"Peace for Colombia will be a reality," Santos said in opening remarks at the conference. "We will not betray the hopes of Colombians or the international community, which has accompanied us with such generosity."
Government negotiators have returned to Havana, Cuba, where the original talks took place, to discuss opposition suggestions with FARC leadership and make changes to the accord.
Leaders at the summit have repeatedly expressed their support for the peace process, which would end 52 years of war that have killed nearly a quarter of a million people.
(Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta in Cartagena, Deisy Buitrago in Caracas; Editing by Helen Murphy and Chizu Nomiyama)