Anti-Chavez Venezuelan Union Leader Flees to Peru

By Leandro Prada | July 7, 2008 | 8:18pm EDT

Buenos Aires ( - In a move that could revive recent tensions between the two Latin American countries, the government of Peru has granted asylum to Carlos Ortega, a Venezuelan activist who is strongly opposed to the Chavez administration.

Ortega told the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal this week that Peru was granting him political asylum. Ortega is former president of the Venezuelan Workers' Confederation and a leader in protests leading up to the coup that briefly ousted Hugo Chavez from the Venezuelan presidency in April 2002.

A longstanding anti-Chavez campaigner, Ortega demanded Chavez' resignation several times. He also led a crippling oil sector strike that lasted 63 days in late 2002 and early 2003.

In March 2003 he sought asylum in Costa Rica but was not successful and returned quietly to Venezuela. Two years later he was charged with conspiracy and treason, and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Ortega escaped from a Caracas prison early late August and made his way to Peru, where he then made public the asylum approval.

Peru's ambassador in Caracas, Luis Santamaria Calderon, said he hoped the case would not affect bilateral ties.

"There are always political consequences after a country grants political asylum to an opponent of another nation's regime," international analyst Alejandro Deustua told the Peruvian newspaper, La Republica.

Deustua added that Venezuela should not react, however, "because international law is on Peru's side." A convention signed in Montevideo in 1933 regulates political asylum in the region.

"Ortega is accused of rebellion, and as such cannot go back to his country," said Peruvian Foreign Minister Jose Garcia Belaunde, "Since he is a union leader, we think that his is not a common crime, but a political crime."

Belaunde also explained that Ortega would have to meet certain conditions such as "not engaging in politics, or supporting political campaigns in Peruvian soil," if he is to continue enjoying the benefits of asylum.

The head of the Peruvian Workers' Confederation, Elias Grijalva, urged the Peruvian government to safeguard Ortega's life, and he paid tribute to the Venezuelan, saying he had defended democracy in his country.

"Chavez's government has not forgiven [Ortega] for having denounced the dictatorship," Grijalva said.

Jose Pirela, a lawmaker with the pro-Chavez left-wing PPT party in Venezuela slammed the Peruvian government for granting Ortega asylum, telling the Diario El Tiempo newspaper that Ortega was "a terrorist, a thief, and also a fugitive from justice."

Relations between Chavez and Peruvian President Alan Garcia were strained to the point of recalling their respective ambassadors following Peru's presidential election in mid-2006. Chavez openly voiced his support for left-wing candidate Ollanta Humala.

After defeating Humala, Garcia said he had no intention of leading an anti-Chavez continental movement, though ties remained cool until the two presidents met at a South American leaders' summit in December 2006, after which the ambassadors were reinstated.

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