From Middle Power to Regime Change Specialist: Canada and the Venezuela Crisis

Canada’s image as a moderate force seeking multilateral dialogue on the situation in Venezuela is little more than rhetoric veiling Ottawa’s increasingly interventionist role in Latin America. 

March 29, 2019

President Donald Trump bids farewell to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, at the South Portico of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Shealah Craighead/Wikipedia Commons)

Like most other governments—save those in the United States and among the self-declared ‘transition’ administration of Juan Guaidó—Canada has stopped short of calling for direct foreign military intervention in Venezuela. The Trudeau administration and its allies have also attempted to distance themselves from the word ‘coup,’ a particularly befuddling discursive dance as they call for the military to remove Nicolás Maduro from the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas and seize Venezuelan sovereign assets. Against its exported image as a calming proponent of multilateralism, Canada has in fact emerged as a chief protagonist for regime change in Venezuela, a position that follows a longer standing pattern of Ottawa’s interventions in the Americas.     

When Juan Guaidó, head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself interim president on January 23, he did so only after being assured by foreign powers that he would receive their backing. The Trump administration in the United States and right-leaning governments throughout Latin America immediately recognized him, and few would be surprised that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro stood shoulder to shoulder against Nicolás Maduro. Since then, much deserved concern has honed in on the saber-rattling of U.S. Special Envoy and accused war criminal Elliott Abrams and other administration hawks like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. Indeed, persistent threats from the United States, and from Guaidó himself, to “keep all options on the table” and use military intervention to oust Maduro are testing the strength of the North Atlantic’s anti-Maduro coalition. Even dyed-in-the-wool anti-Chavista outlets like The Economist caution against the use of force. However, Washington’s noise, orchestrated spectacles like the humanitarian aid convoy on the Colombia-Venezuela border, and Guaidó’s less-than-dramatic return to Caracas obscure other key players in the escalating crisis. 

In particular, Canada’s active pursuit of regime change has been largely footnoted, despite the outsized role played by the administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and in particular Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. While still touting its reputation as a benevolent, morally-conscious, and peaceful non-interventionist “middle power,” Canada has coordinated efforts with the most hardline elements of Venezuela’s opposition to isolate and overthrow the Maduro government. It has done so while legitimating post-coup governments in Brazil and Honduras and covering for the human and environmental abuses of Canada’s extractive industries in the region. Far from the concerned neighbor and human rights defender, critics increasingly refer to Canada’s role in the Americas as cynically self-interested and imperialist in nature—a shift that has by and large gone unnoticed or ignored by many Canadians.

There are no shortage of reasons to oppose Maduro. However, Canada’s stance throughout the most recent crisis is less a response to the increasingly dire humanitarian situation or Maduro’s authoritarian turn than a result of its long-term collaborations with the Venezuelan right and a symptom of Canada’s recent policies in the Americas.

From Middle to Imperial Power? 

Advocating consensus and multilateralism, Canadian foreign policy is traditionally focused on moral leadership, peacekeeping, and conflict mediation—soft power—while remaining solidly within a North Atlantic geopolitical context anchored by economic, military, and colonial superpowers (first Great Britain, and now the United States). In the 20thcentury, this translated into a few instances of striking Canadian independence while it in general maintained a fundamental commitment to the liberal order. For example, Canada turned down the United States’ request to house nuclear weapons in its territory during the Cold War—though it went back and forth on this decision a number of timesand later opted out of direct military involvement in Vietnam and Iraq. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously crossed the U.S. blockade of Cuba in the 1970s and enjoyed warm diplomatic and personal relations with Fidel Castro, who was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral in 2000.

Diplomatic independence and a less adventurist military aside, however, several critics have noted that Canada’s role in the Americas is less than benign. As Tyler Shipley explained in his book, Ottawa and Empire: Canada and the Military Coup in Honduras:

“Canada’s imperial presence in Latin America stretches back more than a century; the largest company [today operating under the name Brookfield Asset Management] in turn-of-the century Brazil was nicknamed the ‘Canadian Octopus’ because its tentacles dominated so many industries, Canadian banks and railroads were all over Batista’s Cuba, and Canada even landed troops to aid in the massacre of Salvadoran peasants [in 1932] rebelling against the military dictator who had allowed a Canadian company to have an extortionate monopoly on telecommunications and transportation. A hundred years later, the story is the same.” 

Canada’s role in the Americas has been overshadowed by that of the United States. Indeed, some suggest the United States provides Canada with useful cover while both countries pursue the same policy agenda. 

These longer-standing patterns shifted both qualitatively and quantitatively with the changing geopolitical landscape of the post- Cold War world. Rather than the counterinsurgency campaigns favored by the United States in Central America in the 1980s, Canadian policy aims to orchestrate the conditions necessary for capital accumulation via diplomatic measures, economic pressures, and image-crafting. The results, however, are strikingly similar. This approach can be seen in Canada’s participation in the international occupation of Haiti and its subsequent propping up of successive illegitimate and repressive Haitian governments. Canadian businesses, particularly in the extractive sector, have all the while been hard at work stripping the already-ransacked island nation of its resources. Canada has also worked diligently to mainstream post-coup governments in Honduras, where Canadian resource companies helped rewrite the country’s mining code. In doing so, Canada has turned a blind eye to gross human rights violations since the 2009 coup, including the criminalization of human rights, Indigenous, and environmental campaigners and the jailing of political prisoners like Edwin Espinal, a popular resistance organizer married to a Canadian citizen.  

Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, faced criticism for reconfiguring the Canadian foreign aid and development ministries. By integrating development aid with international trade and foreign affairs, Harper effectively subordinated humanitarian assistance to profits for Canadian businesses abroad. Even before Harper’s overhaul, extractive industries played a particularly prominent role in determining policy, but this role has expanded since. For example, Harper’s Conservative party cut support for humanitarian development programs, while diverting millions in aid to public relations campaigns and subsidies for the Canadian mining industry in Latin America. Human rights and environmental abuses are rife around mining sites, with women, poor, Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples suffering the majority of violence and displacement. 

Many saw Justin Trudeau’s administration as an end to Harper’s cynical policies at home and abroad. Promising a return of the Canada liberals in the United States long dreamt of, Trudeau proudly announced “Canada’s back” shortly after taking office and naming one of the most gender equitable and racially diverse cabinets in the world. 

In international affairs, however, there has been more continuity than rupture. Canada remains a major arms supplier to some of the world’s most objectionable regimes, including a $15 billion deal with Saudi Arabia as it pursues a genocidal war in Yemen. Harper negotiated the deal, but Trudeau’s Liberals inked it in 2016. Now, an unfolding scandal in which Trudeau actively pressured Canada’s Attorney General to overlook potentially illegal activities on the part of Quebec-based engineering and infrastructure development firm SNC-Lavalin illustrates the continuation of a long-standing quasi-corporatist relationship between the Canadian government and major national firms. The Trudeau administration’s efforts in Venezuela are familiar elements of Canadian policy and symptomatic of the forces with which Ottawa allies itself in the Americas. 

Canada, The Lima Group, and Regime Change in Venezuela

The Lima Group was founded in August 2017 as a regional bloc “to address the critical situation in Venezuela...through a peaceful and negotiated solution,” by increasing financial and diplomatic pressure on the Maduro government. Initially made up of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru, the new forum excluded Venezuelan allies in the Caribbean, Cuba, Bolivia, and Nicaragua that had thwarted Organization of American States President Luis Almagro’s sustained attempts to isolate and overthrow Maduro. Canada was central in the founding of the Group, building on Trudeau’s collaborations with Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who later resigned over accusations tied to the Odebrecht corruption scandal. 

The United States is not formally a member, as its antagonistic relationship with Venezuela since the election of Hugo Chávez in 1999 poses a potential barrier to constructive dialogue. The Lima Group does not recognize the National Constituent Assembly, elected in a controversial vote Maduro convened in 2017, or any legislation that body promulgates. Even before Guaidó’s proclamation as president, Canada and the Lima Group refused to recognize Maduro’s 2018 reelection and regularly publicly condemned the government for human rights and political violations, often on a case-by-case basis. The Group issued an immediate condemnation, for example, of Guaidó’s brief pro formadetention on January 13 as he was en route to a Lima Group meeting in Bogotá, where attendees openly conspired to overthrow Maduro. The Lima Group has not issued rapid response condemnations of other violence or infrastructure damage as a result of opposition blockade protests, known as guarimbas. Nor, unsurprisingly, has the Group expressed concern about the repressive and anti-democratic actions of Brazil, Guatemala, and Honduras. While the Lima Group has thus far refused to echo or endorse Washington’s threats of overt military intervention and presents its intentions as purely humanitarian, both the Venezuelan government and opposition understand its actions as partisan in nature. 

In addition to official meetings of the Lima Group in Toronto in 2017 and Ottawa in 2019, Canada has also supported the Venezuelan opposition through unofficial and official visits of key figures. Mitzy Capriles, wife and proxy for former mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma, and former National Assembly member María Corina Machado, have both been feted in major cities, universities, and media outlets. Machado, for example, was among other times invited to Canada in 2005 when she was the head of an anti-Chávez Non-Governmental Organization. While at the time, Ottawa acknowledged that it “recognizes the legitimacy of the democratically elected government of Venezuela,” they nonetheless emphasized their desire to hear from and support its opponents. More recently, in 2017, Lilian Tintori, the wife of Leopoldo López—who many see as the intellectual author of the current crisis, with the ultimate aim of seizing the presidency for himself—has also used Canada as a willing amplifier for her message. Capriles, Machado, and Tintori provide human faces to the political and financial resources provided by Canadian governments—both Liberal and Conservative, with little by way of protest from the opposition New Democrats—for so-called ‘democracy promotion’ in Venezuela. 

In addition to being celebrated by Canadian media, academics, and politicians, these visits reinforce a one-sided narrative of Venezuelan politics for Canadian and international audiences. The politics of the situation in Venezuela are evacuated in these spectacles. The result is an officially-sponsored commonsensical understanding of the crisis, nourished by voyeuristic reports in the press on the dire humanitarian situation and reductive good versus evil accounts of innocent opposition protesters battling a corrupt and repressive government. As Todd Gordon, co-author of Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America notes, this dynamic has been in place for decades, as successive Canadian governments have cultivated and promoted the agenda of those involved in the failed 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez. In the official Canadian account of Venezuelan politics, the credentials of the opposition—themselves often corrupt, complicit in violence, and only liberal-democrats when it suits their cause—are either absent or falsified.

Meanwhile, Canada’s embassy in Caracas has been actively involved in “democracy promotion” in Venezuela through funding opposition activists and awarding an annual Human Rights Award. The award has not celebrated the contributions of any government-aligned or neutral campaigners for LGBTQ2+, environmental, women’s, or other human rights. Along with other monetary and international recognition opportunities, the award gives recipients enhanced profiles and political capital for their work as opposition activists to undermine the Venezuelan government. 

Several international sources—none particularly sympathetic to Maduro—have reported that Guaidó only committed to his current path after a call from Mike Pence committed to vigorous U.S. support. Such reports have also noted Minister Freeland’s role in making that support happen, and the degree to which her office has worked with its U.S. counterparts in developing a comprehensive strategy between the Lima Group and the United States. Though nominally independent, in other words, Canada, the Lima Group, and the United States’s actions have been complimentary. 

Despite, or perhaps because of this record of coordination with the U.S. and the hardline opposition in Venezuela, Canadian public opinion makers continue to depict the country’s role  in the current impasse in Venezuela in self-flattering hues of a middle power. In a particularly dishonest Globe and Mail opinion piece titled “How Canada Almost Saved Venezuela – Until Washington Crashed the Party,” Doug Saunders mischaracterizes the political situation in Venezuela, including incorrectly depicting Guaidó as the head of a mass movement of the Left. Saunders also naively argues that the oafish U.S. hijacked the Trudeau government’s otherwise good work in the Lima Group to Maduro’s benefit. The argument that Guaidó is now over-extended and was ill-served by the same U.S. approach to regime change that failed in Iraq and Syria is likely true. However, the familiar Canadian trope of the middle power undone by its most important ally ignores the high degree of correspondence between Washington and Ottawa toward Caracas. 

Indeed, something like the current situation was entirely predictable given the actors involved: Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and John Bolton in the United States, Leopoldo López in Venezuela, Luis Almagro in the Organization of American States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Iván Duque and the Uribistas in Colombia. Canada picked its side long ago and has been using its own unique tools to bring about a similar, coordinated result. In other words, the notion of the middle power doggedly pursuing a multilateral solution to a breach in the liberal order is at best a self-serving misdiagnosis of the situation. It is rather an apology for and a willful obfuscation of Ottawa’s increasingly interventionist role in the Americas.

Donald Kingsbury lectures in Political Science and Latin American Studies at the University of Toronto. He is author of Only the People Can Save the People: Constituent Power, Revolution, and Counter-Revolution in Venezuela (SUNY, 2018).

Editors' Note: This piece erroneously stated that Canada had a $150 billion with Saudi Arabia. In fact, the deal was for $15 billion. We regret the error, which has since been corrected.

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