Baird postpones Venezuela trip following return of Chavez from Cuba

OTTAWA – Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s trip to Venezuela this week was postponed after Caracas found it to be too delicate a moment to host some — but not all — foreign visitors.

Venezuela pulled the plug on Baird’s scheduled visit after strongman president Hugo Chavez was unexpectedly released from a Cuban hospital Monday and returned home.

Baird had been scheduled to hold meetings with government counterparts and other opposition representatives as part of a six-country tour of Latin America.

Sources said the Venezuelan government found the atmosphere surrounding Chavez’s return to be too politically charged to host Baird.

However, that didn’t stop a close left-wing ally of Chavez from travelling to Caracas on Tuesday.

Bolivian President Evo Morales arrived in the Venezuelan capital declaring, “I really want to see him.”

Chavez has spent the last 10 weeks receiving cancer treatment in Cuba.

Uncertainty prevailed over whether Chavez would be able to be officially sworn in as president after winning an election last fall before his illness struck.

Chavez, 58, was re-elected to a new six-year term in October. His planned Jan. 10 inauguration had to be indefinitely postponed, sparking complaints by the opposition.

The country’s Supreme Court upheld the decision and said it could preside over his swearing in at a later date.

It’s not clear whether Chavez is strong enough recite the oath of office. He remained out of sight Tuesday.

Officials have confirmed he uses a tube to help breathe, but it is not certain whether he can breathe without a ventilator.

Baird’s trip was cancelled in a telephone call Monday night.

The day before the news broke of Chavez’s departure from a Cuban hospital, Baird spoke to The Canadian Press from Lima, Peru, saying he wanted to hold talks on increasing opportunities for Canadian businesses in Venezuela.

Baird also said he was concerned — as is the United States — that Venezuela is growing too close to Iran, a country Canada severed relations with last year and that faces United Nations sanctions over its nuclear ambitions.

“I’m concerned about their nuclear program. I’m concerned about their support of terrorism,” Baird said in the interview.

“And I’m concerned about their deteriorating human rights record at home. So I don’t think we’ll see eye to eye with Venezuela on that.”

Baird also said he planned to meet opposition figures in Venezuela — something that would have landed him squarely in the middle of the uncertainty unfolding about the whether Chavez will be able to carry on, or have to be replaced.

Baird said he had a full business agenda planned in Venezuela, but that “obviously we want to promote democracy, and we want to promote political freedoms.”

The minister’s final leg of what is now a truncated five-country Latin American swing will take him to Panama and the Dominican Republic.

Baird touted meetings in Mexico, Cuba and Peru that pushed economic growth and prosperity as well as individual freedoms and human rights.

“We hope to find another mutually convenient time to engage with Venezuela on matters related to economic prosperity and human rights,” Baird said in a statement Tuesday.