POLITICS
02/04/2019 11:56 EST | Updated 02/05/2019 07:18 EST

Canada's Response To Venezuela Political Crisis A 'Gamble': Experts

The country's leader is refusing to step down.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will host foreign ministers from several South American countries to discuss how to support Juan Guaido, an opposition figure in Venezuela who declared himself president.
The Canadian Press
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will host foreign ministers from several South American countries to discuss how to support Juan Guaido, an opposition figure in Venezuela who declared himself president.

On Monday, the federal government hosts a crucial gathering of representatives from several Latin American countries in Ottawa to try to answer a behemoth of a question: How can they support the self-declared interim president of Venezuela?

The Lima Group's summit will be closely watched as the political crisis in Venezuela unfolds alongside a humanitarian disaster that has ushered in poverty, hunger and the exodus of millions of people.

The gathering of more than a dozen of Canada's Western Hemisphere allies is meant to find new ways to support Venezuela's opposition and ease the humanitarian and refugee crisis.

But to some experts, the way Canada has chosen to get involved in this political powder keg is a "gamble."

Hold on. What is happening in Venezuela?

On Jan. 23, as tens of thousands of people in the streets of Venezuela's capital, Caracas, raged against their country's government, a man named Juan Guaido stood up and declared himself the interim president of the country.

His argument: since the country's last elections in May 2018 were undemocratic, President Nicolas Maduro can't be the legitimate president and his new term that started in January is null.

According to two crucial articles in the country's constitution, in the absence of an elected leader, the person in charge of the country's National Assembly takes the reins in order to call for free and fair elections

"Pending election and inauguration of the new President," article 233 states, "the President of the National Assembly shall take charge of the Presidency of the Republic."

And who became the leader of the National Assembly just weeks prior to all of this? Guaido.

First the U.S backed him, then Canada jumped in with other South American nations. Within 24 hours, Guaido found himself going from a relatively unknown figure on the world stage to being recognized by many as the sole legitimate leader of Venezuela. On Monday, several European countries also expressed support for the 35-year-old.

But leader Nicolas Maduro refuses to step down and has recently heightened the rhetoric around other countries' involvement in Venezuelan affairs. China, Russia and Turkey have also expressed support for the leader, adding another international dynamic to an already complex situation.

"We ask that nobody intervenes in our internal affairs ... and we prepare ourselves to defend our country," Maduro told Spanish show Salvados on Sunday, according to BBC News.

Why did we jump into this so quickly?

The fact that Canada is supporting a challenger to Maduro isn't entirely surprising, as the federal Liberals have refused to recognize his presidency and have slapped sanctions on the leader's regime in response to his "illegitimate and anti-democratic" elections last year.

Since 2017, the government has also been heavily involved in the Lima Group, a coalition of Latin American countries that aims to restore democracy in Venezuela.

"This is our neighbourhood,'' said Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is hosting the Lima Group meeting, last week. "For Canadians, we have a very direct interest in what happens in our hemisphere. That is why we have been so active and will continue to be so active."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also weighed in on the issue Monday, blasting Maduro's government as a "dictatorship willing to use fear and coercion to retain power."

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Trudeau also announced $53 million worth of humanitarian assistance for the "most-pressing needs" of Venezuelans, including the almost three million refugees.

But Canada's quick move to recognize Guaido, and the fact it came in such lockstep with other nations, surprised some foreign policy experts.

"To be quite honest I was a little bit shocked that Canada would endorse what to me appears to be a fairly blatant attempt by the United States to continue what it's been trying to do for the last 18 years, which is overthrow the Venezuelan government," said Arnd Jurgensen, a political science professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

The Canadian Press
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has declared himself the interim president of Venezuela, greets supporters as he arrives at a nationwide demonstration demanding the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela on Feb. 2, 2019.

Jurgensen noted that he doesn't think Canada is voicing support for Guaido simply because the U.S. did. He recognizes that it is playing a big part in the Lima Group and is doing more than just align itself with the U.S. administration. But he can't shake the notion that Canada needs to "court favour" with the U.S., especially if it wants to cut through tough American tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum.

Maxwell Cameron, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, said Canada "conniving with the U.S." is certainly one reading of the situation. But another could be that it is trying to provide protection for democratic leaders in the country, which is in line with the brand that Canada has been working to cultivate on the world stage.

What was it about Guaido that made us so pumped to support him?

It wasn't Guaido's politics or policies that made him such a lightning rod for international support so much as his position, according to Jean Daudelin.

"It just happens that, at last, I would say, the Venezuelan opposition appears to have agreed and really closed ranks behind one person," said Daudelin, an associate professor at Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

"I think the countries that have recognized him are not betting on him as a person because he is essentially unknown. He has had a meteoric trajectory, but people don't know much about his positions, his aptitude or skills at governing or anything like that."

His ability to replace [President Nicolas] Maduro and to really hold together the very fractured opposition has a big question mark behind it.Arnd Jurgensen, political science professor

Jurgensen said he's been following Venezuelan affairs closely for several decades and hadn't heard or seen Guaido's name until recent weeks.

"Basically one of the things that held me — and I've heard from numerous others that are more informed of internal affairs in Venezuela than I — is that he has very little standing inside Venezuela itself," Jurgensen said.

"In other words, his ability to replace Maduro and to really hold together the very fractured opposition has a big question mark behind it."

So, what would have happened if Canada didn't say anything?

"That would have been fine," said Cameron.

"We would have then been in the company of Mexico and Uruguay, and that would have put us potentially in a position of being, again, a peace-maker or broker between those groups that are pushing hard — on the part of the international community — pushing hard for change in the regime."

Daudelin agrees with that assessment. Canada's swift recognition of Guaido, he said, could lead it to forfeit its traditional role of being a "bridge builder."

Handout/Reuters
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a military exercise in Turiamo, Venezuela on Feb. 3, 2019.

The European Union, for example, did not immediately recognize Guaido as interim president of Venezuela. Instead, it's cautiously voicing its support for the 35-year-old this week out of fear of setting a precedent for opposition leaders in other countries, according to Reuters.

Canada's eagerness to recognize a challenger now puts it in an awkward position, Daudelin said.

"This opens the door to very strange situations where in fact we hit really hard on weak authoritarian regimes and we let the really hardcore ones get away with murder and full-fledged dictatorship."

"Basically we're betting that Maduro will fall. If it works, it's great. If it doesn't work ... let's say half the military decide to side with Guaido and some kind of confrontation develops. We're not in a position to play a role at bridge building."

Wait a minute. The military? This isn't a coup or anything, is it?

A coup is a violent, illegal seizure of power by the military or other parties related to a government, but the complex situation in Venezuela doesn't allow for such a neat and tidy definition.

Some have described Guaido's declaration as a simple following of the law, that he was merely abiding by the country's constitution to temporarily take the reins to ensure free and fair elections were available. Others, like NDP MP Niki Ashton and the Canadian Union of Public Employees have blasted Canada's government for supporting a "military coup."

"We cannot support an agenda of economic or military coups," said Ashton.

Saskatchewan's Erin Weir — a former New Democrat who switched his political affiliation to the defunct Co-operative Commonwealth Federation last May — said Canada is backing a "coup" in the volatile, oil-rich Latin American country.

"Our government recognized an opposition MP declaring himself president of Venezuela. I wish I'd thought of that," Weir said. "I'm going to resist the temptation to declare myself prime minister of Canada."

Watch the exchange:

"That depends very much on how you define coup and how this plays out," said Jurgensen. "I think that Mr. Guaido's claim to legitimacy is relatively thin, and if it wasn't for the fact that he's been recognized by foreign governments, his swearing in as president of Venezuela would go nowhere."

Daudelin said what is happening could very well be considered a coup.

"It all revolves around this discussion of the article [in the constitution] and in political terms to the extent that the U.S. was the first to move aggressively on this front, especially under the current administration where selectivity is almost a matter of principle."

For Cameron, the situation might not be a coup at the moment, but it could very well lead to one.

"A coup is one possibility in the spectrum of possible outcomes, and it may be something that would be welcome by some sectors both domestically and in the international community, but I don't think it's a necessary effect of what's happening. It is nonetheless absolutely clear that the military position in all of this is decisive."

So far, the military has maintained its support for Maduro. But on Saturday, one senior general defected to the opposition, according to Reuters, leading the leader to propose early Parliamentary elections.

So ... did we do the right thing here? I'm getting nervous.

Cameron, Jurgensen and Daudelin all seem to agree with Canada's support to get Maduro to step down. But it's the approach that has them worried.

For Cameron, Canada's close work with the Lima Group and other allies on the political crisis is in line with its brand of working multilaterally. But he noted that the Liberal government's next steps will be crucial to watch, especially as U.S. President Donald Trump says that military intervention in the country is "an option."

"Are we going to be reaching out to other countries in the hemisphere and beyond to offer our good offices to try to find a negotiated solution? Or is our position one of simply rallying international communities — which we're very good at doing — behind the Americans?" Cameron said.

I think it's a gamble. I hope it works.Jean Daudelin, political science professor

"That's potentially more worrisome because ... I don't trust any of these people in Washington with regards to what they're doing in Venezuela."

For Daudelin, this rapid leap into supporting an opposition leader has potentially put Canada in an awkward position.

He said Canada and the U.S. are not rushing to support opposition figures against leaders who suppress dissent in, say, North Korea or Saudi Arabia — probably because those types of leaders tend to crush challengers before they have a chance of declaring anything.

"I think it's a gamble. I hope it works. But consistency with our stand here on substance in favour of democracy, in favour of the rule of law, will be difficult to sustain," he said.

With files from Ryan Maloney and The Canadian Press