Venezuela's Maduro gets support from Erdogan, Maradona ahead of vote

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's diplomatically-isolated president got a show of support from his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan and Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona on Thursday ahead of a weekend election boycotted by the opposition and decried by Washington.

The United States, the European Union and major Latin American countries have criticized Sunday's vote in which leftist President Nicolas Maduro is likely to win re-election to a six-year term.

Critics say Maduro, a 55-year-old former bus driver who has presided over an economic meltdown, is virtually assured victory as two of his most popular opponents are banned from running and the electoral council is pro-government.

The Trump administration has threatened further sanctions and urged Latin America to cut off Venezuelan officials from financial systems and restrict their travel visas.

Foreign shows of support are especially welcome to Maduro in the run-up to Sunday. On the campaign trail he has sought to legitimize his leadership, while playing down the brutal economic crisis that has Venezuelans skipping meals, succumbing to once controlled diseases, and emigrating en masse.

In a split screen chat broadcast on Venezuelan state television on Thursday, Maduro and Erdogan held a stilted, translated conversation that had several technical problems.

"I wish you much success in the coming election, and a month later I think we're going to have success in Turkey. One of my first tasks will be a state visit to Venezuela," said Erdogan, referring to Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24.

"I have faith you will be triumphant," Erdogan told Maduro, whose main rival is former state Governor Henri Falcon, who broke with an opposition boycott to run for the presidency.

In turn, Maduro told Erdogan that "Venezuelans are going to give a lesson on democracy and liberty to the world on Sunday."

At Maduro's closing campaign event later on Thursday in central Caracas, Maradona surprised the crowd by dancing in to the rhythm of a catchy reggaeton song while waving a Venezuelan yellow, blue and red flag.

Maradona, who has called himself a "soldier" for Maduro, is well-known for supporting leftist politicians and was a friend of late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, whose image is tattooed on his leg.

"ILLIBERAL WORLD"

Maduro and Erdogan have both faced criticism for their authoritarian-style rule and seeking to snuff out dissent while mishandling their economies.

Erdogan, whose roots are in political Islam, has clashed with the West over a series of issues including Syria policy and criticism of his crackdown at home. He has also unnerved foreign investors with his drive for lower borrowing costs amid double-digit inflation, a stance that has helped send the lira currency to a record low this year.

Maduro, meanwhile, regularly says a right-wing, U.S.-led campaign is sabotaging the economy in order to foment a coup and usher in a capitalist leadership.

Mainstream economists blame strict currency controls, poor management, and corruption for Venezuela's deep recession. Rights activists also say Maduro, the successor of late leader Hugo Chavez, has cracked down on protests and unjustly imprisoned activists.

"For the Venezuelan government, this election is not designed to look legitimate in front of the Western world, but rather in front of the illiberal world like Russia, China, Turkey and Qatar," said opposition lawmaker and economist Angel Alvarado.

"Maduro will try to present himself, not as a democrat, but as a government that has popular support ... to have a bit of legitimacy and receive financial help."

China and Russia have lent Caracas billions of dollars and both have significant oil fields in Venezuela, home to the world's biggest crude reserves.

Turkey has a much smaller presence, but Turkish Airlines started flying to Caracas in 2016 - one of a few major international carriers to still service the chaotic country - and Venezuela's government has said Turkey would invest in its new "petro" cryptocurrency.

Maduro and Erdogan on Thursday also vowed more cooperation in oil, mining, gas, agriculture, technology, and industry.

Venezuelan opposition leaders say Maduro is selling assets on the cheap in an attempt to keep his cash-strapped government afloat despite a fifth straight year of recession and collapsing oil production.

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld, Andreina Aponte and Girish Gupta; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Tom Brown)

05/17/2018 15:16

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