Argentina-Venezuela showdown over 'political prisoners'

Asuncion (AFP) - Argentina's conservative new President Mauricio Macri urged Venezuela Monday to free all "political prisoners," drawing a caustic reply from his socialist counterpart Nicolas Maduro's government, which told him to quit "meddling."

Speaking at a summit of South American leaders -- which Maduro snubbed -- Macri said: "I expressly call on all the presidents for the prompt release of all political prisoners in Venezuela."

That rankled Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, who is representing her country at the summit of regional bloc Mercosur.

"You are meddling in Venezuela's affairs," she told Macri.

The Venezuelan government adamantly denies holding political prisoners, but the jailing of figures like opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma has drawn condemnation from human rights groups and the United Nations.

Lopez was sentenced to nearly 14 years in September on charges of inciting violence during anti-government protests that swept the country last year.

Ledezma, who faces similar charges, is currently under house arrest awaiting trial.

Business-friendly conservative Macri's arrival on the scene in Argentina after 12 years of left-wing government has set the stage for a diplomatic fracas with Venezuela, the country at the vanguard of Latin America's leftward tilt over the past decade and a half.

Even before taking office on December 10, Macri irked Maduro by calling for Venezuela to be kicked out of Mercosur for violating its "democracy clause."

He backtracked after Venezuela's opposition won a landslide victory in legislative elections on December 6.

But he made clear Monday he wasn't finished yet.

"There can be no place for ideological persecution in Mercosur member states," Macri told the gathering in the Paraguayan capital Asuncion, his first summit of the five-member bloc.

"My vision of democracy goes far beyond going to the polls every so often. Democracy is a way of life, a pact for coexistence."

Rodriguez for her part had come prepared for the showdown.

She waved a series of photographs depicting the violence that erupted during last year's protests and counter-protests in Venezuela, which killed 43 people.

"You are defending these people," she told Macri.

"You are defending political violence."