According to the official story that the Liberal government and most of the mainstream media have been trying to sell, Ottawa recently recognized the leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly as that country’s president because Nicolas Maduro suspended the constitution 18 months ago and thus lost legitimacy. Thus, Ottawa intervened aggressively to re-establish democratic order there. But this narrative of Canada’s involvement omits its long-standing hostility to the Venezuelan government.
In recent days Canada’s former ambassador to Venezuela, Ben Rowswell, has repeatedly claimed that Canada’s effort to overthrow Venezuela’s government began with Maduro’s call for a Constituent Assembly in July 2017, which Rowswell considers illegitimate. Canada’s “approach to democracy promotion … can be traced to the summer of 2017, when Nicolas Maduro suspended the constitutional order,” he wrote in a Globe and Mail op-ed.
But Rowswell knows this is not true. In fact, when he departed as ambassador in July 2017, he sang a different tune, boasting that “we established quite a significant internet presence inside Venezuela, so that we could then engage tens of thousands of Venezuelan citizens in a conversation on human rights. We became one of the most vocal embassies in speaking out on human rights issues and encouraging Venezuelans to speak out.”
At the time, Rowswell told the Ottawa Citizen, that anti-Maduro forces need not worry about his departure, “I don’t think they have anything to worry about because Minister (of Foreign Affairs Chrystia) Freeland has Venezuela way at the top of her priority list.”
Long history of backing opposition
Direct Canadian assistance to the opposition dates to at least the mid-2000s. In January 2005, Foreign Affairs invited Maria Corina Machado to Ottawa. Machado was in charge of Súmate, an organization at the forefront of efforts to remove Hugo Chavez as president. Just prior to this invitation, Súmate had led an unsuccessful campaign to recall Chavez through a referendum in August 2004. Before that, Machado’s name appeared on a list of people who endorsed the 2002 coup, for which she faced charges of treason. She denied signing the now-infamous Carmona Decree that dissolved the National Assembly and Supreme Court and suspended the elected government, the attorney general, comptroller general, and governors as well as mayors elected during Chavez’s administration. It also annulled land reforms and reversed increases in royalties paid by oil companies.
Canada also helped finance Súmate. According to disclosures made in response to a question by NDP foreign affairs critic Alexa McDonough, Canada gave Súmate $22,000 in 2005–06. Minister of International Cooperation José Verner explained that “Canada considered Súmate to be an experienced NGO with the capability to promote respect for democracy, particularly a free and fair electoral process in Venezuela.”
Alongside large sums from Washington, Canada has provided millions of dollars to groups opposed to the Venezuelan government over the past 15 years. The foremost researcher on U.S. funding to opposition groups in Venezuela, Eva Golinger, cited Canada’s role, and according to a May 2010 report from Spanish NGO Fride, “Canada is the third most important provider of democracy assistance” to Venezuela after the U.S. and Spain.
In a 2011 International Journal article Neil A. Burron describes an interview with a Canadian “official [who] repeatedly expressed concerns about the quality of democracy in Venezuela, noting that the [federal government’s] Glyn Berry program provided funds to a ‘get out the vote’ campaign in the last round of elections in that country.” You can bet it wasn’t designed to get Chavez supporters to the polls.
Ottawa wasn’t overly concerned about democracy in April 2002 when a military coup took Chavez prisoner and imposed an unelected government. It lasted only two days before popular demonstrations, a split within the army, and international condemnation returned the elected government. While most Latin American leaders condemned the coup, Canadian diplomats were silent.
“In the Venezuelan coup in 2002, Canada maintained a low profile, probably because it was sensitive to the United States ambivalence towards Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez,” writes Flavie Major in the book Promoting Democracy in the Americas.
Continuing Harper’s hostility to Venezuela
The Stephen Harper government didn’t hide its hostility to Chavez. When Chavez was re-elected president with 63 per cent of the vote in December 2006, 32 members of the Organization of American States — which monitored the election — supported a resolution to congratulate him. Canada was the only member to join the U.S. in opposing the message.
Just after Chavez’s re-election, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for hemispheric affairs, Thomas Shannon, called Canada “a country that can deliver messages that can resonate in ways that sometimes our messages don’t for historical or psychological reasons.” Six months later Harper toured South America to help stunt the region’s rejection of neoliberalism and U.S. dependence. (“To show [the region] that Canada functions and that it can be a better model than Venezuela,” in the words of a high-level Foreign Affairs official quoted by Le Devoir.)
During the trip, Harper and his entourage made a number of comments critical of the Chavez government. Afterwards the prime minister continued to demonize a government that had massively expanded the population’s access to health and education services. In April 2009 Harper responded to a question regarding Venezuela by saying, “I don’t take any of these rogue states lightly.” A month earlier, the prime minister referred to the far-right Colombian government as a valuable “ally” in a hemisphere full of “serious enemies and opponents.”
After meeting opposition figures in January 2010, Minister for the Americas Peter Kent told the media, “Democratic space within Venezuela has been shrinking and in this election year, Canada is very concerned about the rights of all Venezuelans to participate in the democratic process.”
“During my recent visit to Venezuela, I heard many individuals and organizations express concerns related to violations of the right to freedom of expression and other basic liberties,” said Kent.
Virginie Levesque, a spokesperson for the Canadian Embassy in Venezuela, also accused the Chavez government of complicity with racism against Jews.
“The Canadian Embassy has encouraged and continues to encourage the Venezuelan government to follow through on its commitment to reject and combat anti-Semitism and to do its utmost to ensure the security of the Jewish community and its religious and cultural centers” said Levesque.
Even the head of Canada’s military joined the onslaught of condemnation against Venezuela. After a tour of South America in early 2010, Walter Natynczyk wrote:,“Regrettably, some countries, such as Venezuela, are experiencing the politicization of their armed forces.” (A Canadian general criticizing another country’s military is, of course, not political.)
After Chavez died in 2013 Harper declared that Venezuelans “can now build for themselves a better, brighter future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.” And when Maduro won the presidential election later that year Ottawa called for a recount, refusing to at first to recognize the results.
Canada’s bid to oust Venezuela’s elected president is not new. These efforts have grown over the past year and a half mostly because of Venezuela’s economic troubles, the rightward shift in the region, and Donald Trump’s hawkishness on the issue.