As tensions mount over aid delivery, is Canada undermining dialogue in Venezuela?
On Jan. 10, Nicolás Maduro was inaugurated for a second term as president of Venezuela, but Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s prime minister of foreign affairs, was not in a congratulatory mood. “Having seized power through fraudulent and anti-democratic elections...the Maduro regime is now fully entrenched as a dictatorship,” Ms. Freeland said in a written statement. “The suffering of Venezuelans will only worsen should he continue to illegitimately cling to power.”
On Jan. 23, opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president of Venezuela, and Canada was among the governments that quickly recognized him as the country’s leader. (Ms. Freeland spoke with Mr. Guaidó about his plans to oppose Mr. Maduro two weeks before his declaration.) Since then, countries around the world have chosen sides in the struggle for presidential legitimacy in this Latin American nation.
Though not usually seen as a major player in global politics, Canada has taken a leadership role in a coalition of nations known as the Lima Group. Established in 2017, the Lima Group says it aims to restore “constitutional democracy” in Venezuela and has endorsed Mr. Guaidó’s claim to the presidency. Canada is the only member of the Lima Group that is not in Latin America or the Caribbean. The group notably does not include the United States.
Canada has played a significant part in the Lima Group, most recently calling member nations to Ottawa, Canada’s capital, for a meeting on Feb. 4 to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and what to do about Mr. Maduro. “Canada is an important country on the world stage, and its support and leadership have been critical to reinforce the Lima Group,” Federico Hoyos, the Colombian ambassador to Canada, told Canadian media. But critics of the Lima Group object that it includes some of Latin America’s most right-wing governments, like Argentina and Brazil.
Though not usually seen as a major player in global politics, Canada has taken a leadership role in the Lima Group, which aims to restore “constitutional democracy” in Venezuela.
Canada’s intervention in the Venezuela crisis has not been universally applauded at home. The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents nearly 700,000 workers, criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for backing Mr. Guaidó, releasing a statement that says the union “rejects any attempt by the Canadian government to interfere with the democratic processes and sovereignty of the Venezuelan people. Given the history of U.S. involvement in the region, the actions of Guaidó have all the signs of a coup d’etat.”
Though the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has so far not commented on the government’s role in the Venezuela crisis, other Christian voices in Canada have expressed concerns. The United Church of Canada (U.C.C.), the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the country, called on Canada to refrain from supporting either side in the political conflict and “to begin an earnest dialogue to resolve the situation with an internally made solution and not resort to foreign intervention.”
“We’ve joined our voice with those of others in churches and the political realm who have called for dialogue,” said Jim Hodgson, program coordinator for the U.C.C.’s partnerships in Latin America and the Caribbean. He works with Christians in the region, including Catholics in some of the world’s poorest and most volatile countries.
“It’s possible that all of us mean different things by dialogue in the details,” he says, but he adds that the U.C.C. vision does not include external pressures on Venezuela.
The United States has been stockpiling food and medicine on the increasingly tense border between Venezuela and Colombia despite Mr. Maduro’s rejection of U.S. aid. That move that has been criticized by international aid organizations who are already delivering aid, like the United Nations and the International Red Cross, as an attempt to force regime change.
Mr. Hodgson describes the aid offered by the United States and rejected by Mr. Maduro as “politicized,” and violence has broken out in recent days as supporters of Mr. Guaidó attempted to move U.S.-sponsored aid through government checkpoints. At least four people were killed and 300 injured as clashes broke out among state security forces, armed pro-government groups and opposition supporters.
Janeth Márquez, national director of Caritas Venezuela, told ACI Prensa that the Catholic aid organization has been able to get some aid into the country, though much more is needed. “Humanitarian aid has already entered Venezuela,” said Ms. Márquez. “We say that the door has not been opened, but some windows have been opened.”
Caritas Venezuela insisted that aid delivery should not be used to serve political interests, but “rather for the benefit of the most vulnerable people.”
In a statement released in early February, Caritas Venezuela insisted that aid delivery should not be used to serve political interests, but “rather for the benefit of the most vulnerable people when a country does not have the resources to do so.” Aid delivery, according to the statement, should be “guided by internationally accepted protocols to respond to serious situations.”
But in a statement released on Feb. 21 Venezuela’s bishops implored the government to “listen to the cry of the people” and allow the contested aid through closed borders with Colombia and Brazil. The statement noted the extreme suffering of the Venezuelan people during the crisis and reiterated a demand for the opening of a humanitarian channel for aid. The bishops urged the Maduro government to accept the aid as a “moral duty,” including humanitarian deliveries being organized via the opposition-led National Assembly, “a legitimate representation of the Venezuelan people.”
Pope Francis has reaffirmed his commitment to help mediate a political solution in Venezuela, provided the desire is authentic on both sides. At the same time, the Catholic bishops of Venezuela have called the Maduro government illegitimate and have made no secret of their support for the opposition.
Mr. Guaidó and many in the international community, including Ms. Freeland, say Mr. Maduro’s claim of a second term in office is illegitimate because it is based on what the United States has called a “sham” presidential election in May 2018. The sentiment was echoed by others, including fellow G7 nations and the European Union.
In a statement released on Jan. 9, the day before Mr. Maduro’s inauguration, Venezuelan bishops said “it is a sin that cries out to heaven” to hold on to political power, referring to Mr. Maduro. They called on Venezuelans to not be “simple spectators of what happens in the country” but actors.
The presidential election, originally scheduled for last December, was moved up to May as part of an agreement between the Maduro government and Venezuela’s opposition parties. Mr. Hodgson was in Venezuela for the election as an observer on behalf of the U.C.C., along with journalists and labor representatives from the social justice groupCommon Frontiers. “We observed an election [in 2018] that was carried out in an orderly way, and a way that, in my experience, was transparent, free and fair,” said Mr. Hodgson.
Venezuela’s bishops implored the government to “listen to the cry of the people” and allow the contested aid through closed borders with Colombia and Brazil.
But according to areport prepared by that delegation, the strongest candidates for the opposition were barred from participating because of criminal charges and administrative obstacles, and the main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, boycotted the elections altogether “because they felt that the conditions were not conducive for elections and because the election date was not subject to the laws of the country.”
Mr. Maduro won following a historically low voter turnout. Some observers of Venezuelan politics cast doubts on the good faith of the opposition’s decision, while others claimed the election had been rigged from the beginning.
Canada agreed with the opposition’s complaints and blocked Venezuelan expatriates from voting in the election at Venezuelan embassies and consulates. Following the election, Canada continued to sponsor conversations between opposition groups and diplomats in an attempt to unify the fractured opposition against the Maduro government.
This approach is strikingly different from Canada’s policies in the previous century toward Cuba, another socialist-led country that had endured political pressure from the United States. Canada did not end diplomatic relations with Cuba following the success of the Cuban revolution in 1959. And during the 1970s and 1980s, under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Canada developed close relationships with Cuba and was critical of U.S. policy toward the Caribbean nation.
The policies toward Venezuela of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the son of Pierre and leader of the Liberal Party, are more in keeping with Canadian foreign policy trends initiated by previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative. The push for Maduro to step down has been stoked by the rhetoric and strategy of Canada’s ally, the United States.
Sanctions have already cost the struggling country billions, and new U.S. sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, announced in January after Mr. Maduro refused to cede power, are expected to cost the nation $11 billion over the next year. Opposition leaders charge that it is Mr. Maduro’s mismanagement and corruption that has led to the crisis; 3.4 million Venezuelans have fled as hyperinflation, business closures and unemployment have led to widespread hunger and scarcity of basic services.
Members of the Trump administration have threatened military intervention in Venezuela in response to the crisis. “That sparks in me and in many of my colleagues in Latin American churches a deep fear,” said Mr. Hodgson.
“We should look at the recent history of regime change and say, ‘What have been the results?’” he said. “What is life like now for the ordinary people in Iraq, or Syrians after the failed attempt to produce a regime change, or Libyans? To me, those are disastrous experiences. We’ve got no business going down that road again.”
Mr. Hodgson offers two pieces of advice for Christians trying to sort through the complexities of Venezuela. First, “we should think again about the preferential option for the poor and bring that to bear in a good and serious look at Venezuela’s history.”
Second, Mr. Hodgson said, Christians should ask simple questions of their governments to find out why they are resistant to calls for dialogue. “You don’t even have to agree that [the Maduro] government is better than what’s proposed by the opposition parties. Just ask questions of your representatives about proposals they’re making,” he says.
“I think there’s space for dialogue to make things better in Venezuela,” says Mr. Hodgson, “and it’s the same thing we say in situations that are difficult in other places, like Colombia. That these processes are coming apart right now is breaking my heart.”