Canada’s role in the crisis in Venezuela: Are we headed for another Iraq war?

A primer on the posturing, propaganda and Canada's attempts to forestall a U.S. invasion of the oil-rich socialist experiment in South America



The depth of the humanitarian crisis

Between 1.5 and 2.3 million people have left Venezuela between 2013 and 2017, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, to escape the ravages of hyperinflation and shortages of food, medicine and basic supplies, along with a deterioration of health and education services and infrastructure such as water and electricity.

The would-be president

Juan Guaidó, a little-known 35-year-old engineer-turned-legislator, declared himself interim president on January 23. He was elected president of the National Assembly of Venezuela in December 2018. Only a few months ago, Guaidó was an obscure character in “Popular Will” centre-left party (Voluntad Popular) formed in 2014.

Citing articles 233, 333 and 350 of the Venezuelan Constitution, Guaidó took over as acting president, describing as fraudulent elections that put sitting president Nicolás Maduro in power in May 2018. Guaidó has been recognized by a number of countries, including Canada, the U.S., European allies and the majority of Latin American countries. Russia, Turkey and China are backing Maduro. 

Countries opposed to Maduro have cited human rights abuses to beat back anti-government protests as part of their rationale for supporting Guaidó. Amnesty International has reported widespread human rights violations, including the arrest of journalists and the country’s former minister of defence. 

However, something that’s little talked about in the Western media is the fact that the opposition asked the United Nations not to send international observers to the May 2018 vote, even though Maduro requested the UN do so. The explanation offered by the opposition was that the UN’s presence would legitimize the election.

To some political observers, Guaidó’s unlikely rise signals the culmination of a two-decades-long project led by the U.S. to destroy a robust socialist experiment started under former president Hugo Chávez.

According to the Venezuelan Constitution on which the opposition have pinned the legitimacy of Guaidó’s presidency, there are six specific circumstances under which the head of the National Assembly can declare himself or herself interim president. They are: death of the sitting president resignation of the sitting president removal of the sitting president from office by a decision of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice permanent physical or mental disabilities certified by a medical board abandonment of the position. And finally, a recall by popular vote.

Canada’s behind-the-scenes diplomacy 

Canada had been playing a leading role behind the scenes for months in the effort to win recognition of Guaidó. According to the Canadian Press, Canadian diplomats in Caracas, with their Latin American counterparts, worked to get the country’s opposition parties to coalesce behind him.

The Canadian Press interviewed senior Canadian government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the crisis in Venezuela. They detailed Canada’s role in aiding democratic forces to rescue the once oil-rich country from the economic and political spiral that has forced three million Venezuelans from their homes.

The role of sanctions 

“Categorically I can say that the U.S. sanctions up until 2017 were not economic sanctions but sanctions against individuals for human rights violations,” says Ben Rowswell, president and director of the Canadian International Council.

Rowswell ascribes the collapse of Venezuela’s economy to mismanagement of the Maduro government 

However, according to other experts, the effects of sanctions imposed by U.S. presidents Barrack Obama and Donald Trump and unilateral measures by Canada and the European Union have directly and indirectly aggravated shortages in medicines. 

UN Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy has been quoted as saying that applying sanctions without approval of the UN Security Council, as required by the UN Charter, precipitated the humanitarian crisis.

Does Canada want to overthrow Venezuela’s government? 

The Lima Group – made up of the foreign ministers Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Peru – was established in 2017 to address the crisis in Venezuela and “explore ways to contribute to the restoration of democracy in that country through a peaceful and negotiated solution.” Its declaration states they have been working on a diplomatic peaceful solution to get Maduro to cede power and call for free and fair elections. 

But according to Yves Engler, a writer and political activist based in Ottawa, the Lima Group was formed “because the governments that were critical of the Maduro government couldn’t get resolutions through the Organization of American States [as they didn’t have the majority of votes].”

Engler notes that Ottawa was silent back in April 2002 when a failed military coup led to the arrest of Chávez. It lasted only two days before popular demonstrations, a split within the army, and international condemnation returned Chávez to power. Most Latin American leaders condemned the coup. 

Other political observers suggest Canada is working behind the scenes to install Guaidó in an effort to avoid U.S. military intervention. Canada and the Lima Group have stated that they oppose military action. 

Meanwhile, the federal NDP has sent mixed messages on its position.

The party’s shadow minister for international development, Hélène Laverdière, recently said the party is “comfortable” with the Canadian government’s recognition of Guaidó, distancing the party from the position of labour groups supporting Maduro.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has attempted to skate around the issue, first stating that “any decision about the future of Venezuela should be in the hands of Venezuelan people.” Unlike Laverdière, Singh has not stated a preference for who should be considered leader.

The growing threat of U.S. military intervention

U.S. President Donald Trump has openly mused about “many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”

His national security advisor John Bolton has been just as vocal, making no bones about wanting to see regime change in Venezuela, including in a series of tweets in recent days. 

At a recent press conference, Bolton characterized U.S. motivation in Venezuela in economic terms. 

“We are trying to get to the same end here. It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

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