What Venezuela’s unending crisis means for Canada
Canada’s support of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s claim to be the country’s interim president hasn’t worked. It’s time to admit failure and change strategy.
Five million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years, pushed out by poverty, collapsing public infrastructure, water contamination, dreadful health care, shortages of medicine and basic goods, police and paramilitary repression and criminal violence — all on top of the corruption, authoritarianism, arrogance and abysmal incompetence of the country’s leadership, headed by President Nicolás Maduro.
A robust opposition movement has been led for the past two years by National Assembly speaker Juan Guaidó, who claims to be interim president. They are pushing for the ouster of Maduro and his clique from power, and for free and fair elections. Several countries and coalitions have supported this endeavour, among them the United States, the European Union and in particular the Lima Group, a bloc of Latin American and Caribbean countries led by Chile and Colombia, but in which Canada also plays a prominent role.
In December 2020, the two sides squared off. The government held legislative elections meant to strip Guaidó of the — admittedly flimsy — constitutional foundation of his claim to be interim president. The opposition, which controlled the National Assembly, had argued that the presidency had been left vacant because of the illegitimacy of the 2018 vote, which kept Maduro in power. In case of vacancy, the constitution specifies that the speaker of the National Assembly is to assume the presidency until new elections can be organized.
On December 6, however, in elections that were boycotted by the opposition and broadly denounced internationally, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela won overwhelmingly and took control of the National Assembly. In its first meeting on January 5, the assembly elected a new leadership, putting a regime hack at its head.
The opposition countered with a partly virtual “popular consultation” that took place between December 5 and December 12. Venezuelans, both inside and outside the country, were invited to denounce Maduro’s claim to the presidency, demand new elections, reject the December 6 poll and enjoin efforts from the opposition to get international support to save the country’s democracy. Predictably, almost all those who voted answered “yes” to all three questions.
Using the organizers’ own numbers, both polls saw about 6 million voters participate, representing roughly 30 per cent of the country’s electorate. Participation in the official election was low even in regime strongholds, and the opposition’s self-proclaimed goal of 15 million votes for its consultation was missed by a large margin. Such anemic support left each side even weaker than they were before and scrambling for the kind of legitimacy that could make the military, still the ultimate arbiter, take their side. While Maduro still stands, in other words, the political situation is just as unstable as it has been over the last two years.
This uncertainty matters for Venezuela, for the region and possibly for the world. It closes off any prospect of a more rational economic policy that could stem the economic collapse of the country. This means more poverty, more violence and more refugees in the region. The problem of refugees is particularly acute in Colombia — which has welcomed huge numbers of them but where the economic, sanitary and security implications of such an inflow, in the middle of a raging pandemic, are increasingly difficult to manage, and where a growing backlash is materializing.
The general uncertainty feeds a desperate quest by Maduro’s regime for more substantive support from its few extra-regional friends — Russia, Turkey, Iran and China. Deeper involvement by these actors would no doubt be met by forceful American opposition.
Where does that leave Canada, whose involvement, particularly under former foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, was driven less by strategic considerations than by human rights and humanitarian concerns — no doubt along with a less noble quest for relevance and regional visibility? Well, it leaves Canada in a bind, for a number of reasons.
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First of all, the acceptance by more than 50 countries of Guaido’s claim to the interim presidency is quickly breaking down. While for now Britain and the U.S. have reaffirmed their support for that claim, the EU implicitly acknowledged that the legal basis of its earlier position had disappeared with December’s election, however illegitimate, of a new National Assembly. The Biden administration’s position appears to be conditional on Guaidó getting the support of the four main opposition parties, which is far from guaranteed. The Lima Group still seems content to stay put, though its latest statement is somewhat ambiguous. What is the point of Canada taking a stand if other key players bow out?
Second, Guaido’s hold over the opposition coalition is increasingly tenuous. His partners have always refrained from recognizing him as their likely presidential candidate in a forthcoming election. After two years of failed attempts at toppling Maduro, his leadership is contested and there are growing discrepancies with his partners about strategy — for instance, regarding participation in forthcoming regime-sponsored regional elections. Denouncing Maduro and promoting elections is one thing; betting on one politician is another one altogether.
Third, the opposition’s campaign included actions whose legality is doubtful. In February 2019, it launched a bizarre attempt to force small caravans of trucks carrying humanitarian supplies through the Colombian and Brazilian borders and into Venezuela, against the will of the Maduro government. These efforts failed miserably. Two people died and hundreds were injured in clashes with Venezuelan police. In May of 2020, Venezuelan security forces easily smothered a botched attempt by members of an American private security company, led by a Canadian-born former Green Beret, to kidnap Maduro.
Such actions by the opposition are unsurprising given the desperate straits in which the country finds itself, but they are hardly compatible with Canada’s commitment to stand by a “rules-based” international order.
Fourth, the Lima Group itself has major limitations as a vehicle for the defence and promotion of democracy. For one thing, with a number of Latin American countries staying out, particularly Argentina and Mexico, its claim to regional representation is weak. And, crucially, the democratic credentials of several of its members are extremely tenuous.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is openly challenging the legitimacy of his country’s democratic institutions. Peru is going through its deepest political crisis in a decade, and Chile is tentatively emerging from its own. Corruption is the rule among the political elites of El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras, and their leaders have been fighting efforts to reign it in. Given such partners, the credibility and legitimacy of the Lima Group’s denunciation of abuses and authoritarianism in Venezuela is basically null.
So, what should Canada do? Drop the Lima Group, whose lack of legitimacy is counterproductive. Join the EU in reframing support for Juan Guaidó and abandon the fiction of the interim presidency. Also with the EU, and hopefully the Biden administration in America, build a large coalition that denies Maduro’s legitimacy but calls for negotiations leading to free and fair elections in which he and his political allies would be free to compete.
Working with a diverse and credible a group of governments, Canada should also denounce broad sanctions, keep providing humanitarian aid in Venezuela and in neighbouring countries and be very cautious about advocating for targeted individual sanctions and especially threats of prosecution by an international court. Sanctions and prosecution threats are favourite tactics of Canadian foreign policy makers, but for the good of the inevitable negotiations with regime figures — and however unpalatable it might be — it’s a good idea not to back them into a corner now.