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The roots of Trudeau’s Venezuela policy

Why is Canada still humiliating itself on the world stage by persisting in its regime change efforts against Venezuela?

Canadian PoliticsLatin America and the Caribbean

Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaidó meets with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as part of an international tour aimed at bolstering support for his challenge to Nicolas Maduro, January 27, 2020. Photo from Twitter.

On November 21, Venezuelans will go to the polls to vote in important regional and municipal elections—and this time, the right-wing opposition bloc “Unitary Platform” has chosen to participate. After boycotting past elections for an alleged lack of democratic oversight (which many pro-government or opposition-skeptical observers identify as a classic “colour revolution” tactic, creating the illusion of authoritarianism by prima facie declaring elections illegitimate), the group has announced that, following “difficult internal deliberation,” they are backtracking. Apparently Venezuelan elections are suddenly worth contesting.

The opposition’s decision to reverse its elections boycott comes on the heels of numerous failed coup attempts against President Nicolás Maduro, all of which were backed materially or diplomatically by the United States, Canada, the European Union, and regional conservative governments. Recently, international forces allied with the Venezuelan opposition suffered two huge setbacks: the new Peruvian government’s decision to leave the Lima Group, a coalition of hard-right Latin American governments and Justin Trudeau’s Canada which is intent on overthrowing the Bolivarian Revolution, and Maduro’s invitation to attend this month’s meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Mexico as Venezuela’s legitimate president (instead of the right-wing pretender Juan Guaidó).

“With Maduro in the CELAC,” writes Ociel Alí López, “the opposition has been hit hard. His presence in Mexico erodes the imaginary idea of a ‘narcoterrorist’ hidden away and persecuted by international justice and relegates the image to historical social media debates.” Thanks in part to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s admirable assumption of a mediator role in the Venezuelan crisis (as opposed to the perpetually inflammatory actions of Lima Group countries, the US, and the EU), the image of political illegitimacy that the opposition and their backers have spent years cultivating around the Bolivarian Revolution is gradually being dismantled. As the embattled right-wing administrations in Colombia, Chile, and Brazil head into challenging elections in 2021 and 2022, the region seems as though it will only grow more open to renewing its acceptance of the legitimacy of the Bolivarian process. In short, it looks like Venezuela may be inching toward a resolution of this dramatic and destructive chapter in its history.

This is not a sure thing, of course. Although the opposition bloc will participate in the November elections and Maduro’s legitimacy was publicly demonstrated at the CELAC conference, the US-led sanctions regime remains in place. Several influential countries, including Canada, continue to recognize the self-declared president Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate authority. Furthermore, the Lima Group still exists, albeit in increasingly attenuated form. All of this begs the question: why is Canada still humiliating itself on the world stage by persisting in its regime change efforts against Venezuela?

On August 8, 2017, foreign ministers and representatives from twelve governments in the Western Hemisphere assembled in Lima, Peru to discuss the political and economic crisis in Venezuela. They declared that the government of Nicolás Maduro was illegitimate and that the “democratically elected National Assembly,” of which Juan Guaidó was the president, had their “full support and solidarity.” The governments of the newly formed Lima Group took a step which the enemies of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution had yet to publicly announce: they were throwing their economic might behind an open offensive for regime change in Caracas. The signatories joined the United States and the European Union in imposing sanctions on the country. Although the roots of Venezuela’s economic crisis can be found in the 2014 plummet of oil prices and the subsequent recession, US-led sanctions have exacerbated the crisis immensely and prevented the country’s recovery.

Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland played a leading role in the Lima Group’s establishment and has been at the forefront of Global North attempts to paint the Venezuelan government as a human rights pariah, while at the same time the military of Colombia, Canada’s close ally, regularly commits acts of violence that would likely earn Venezuela a US-led bombing campaign. She described Maduro as “despicable” and, following the May 2018 presidential election (boycotted by several major opposition parties), she asserted that “today, Nicolás Maduro’s regime loses any remaining appearance of legitimacy. Having seized power through fraudulent and anti-democratic elections held on May 20, 2018, the Maduro regime is now fully entrenched as a dictatorship.” The Trudeau government’s position of selective concern for human rights in Latin America, obviously motivated by geopolitical factors, has been described by professors Stephen Kimber and John Kirk as “an ongoing embarrassment” to Canada.

Since the advent of the Bolivarian Revolution, with all its pros and cons and contradictions, the revolutionary process has enjoyed majority support from the population. Approval is particularly concentrated among the historically marginalized peoples of the barrios, who are disproportionately Afro-Venezuelan and Indigenous. Even after the untimely death of Hugo Chávez in 2013, a leader of tremendous stature who often served to unify the country’s progressive movements even as conflicts sometimes emerged between the central government and grassroots organizations, the people reaffirmed the process: Chávez’s vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, was elected president in 2014. Subsequent elections—continually boycotted by increasingly aggressive opposition forces—re-entrenched the mandate of the Bolivarian Revolution. So why does Canada persist in its merciless campaign to destroy it?

The truth is that Canada, like the United States, is governed by a ruling class that scorns popular left-wing movements in the Global South and especially what their capitalist allies call “resource nationalism,” or the belief by a people that they should retain the benefits of their own country’s industrial production. Much like the Canadian elite views their nation’s Indigenous peoples with racist, classist disdain, so too do they view the transfer of power in resource-rich Venezuela to the people of the barrios as an alarming and unnatural occurrence, regardless of which bourgeois party controls Parliament.

In Open Veins of Latin America (1973), Uruguayan scholar Eduardo Galeano vividly captures the depredations of the Venezuelan oil elite and the horrific economic inequality their avarice engendered in pre-1999 Venezuela:

Caracas… has grown 700 percent in thirty years: the old city of airy patios, central plaza, and silent cathedrals is covered with skyscrapers as Lake Maracaibo is covered with oil wells… From surrounding hillside hovels made of garbage, half a million forgotten people observe the sybaritic scene. The gilded city’s avenues glitter with hundreds of thousands of late-model cars, but in the consuming society not everyone consumes. According to the census, half of Venezuela’s children and youths do not go to school.

Galeano then quotes Venezuelan author Salvador Garmendia, who draws attention to the dismal living conditions surrounding the petroleum sites that generate the oligarchy’s wealth:

The smell of death and decay overpowers the smell of oil. The towns are semi-deserted, wormeaten, ulcerated, the streets deep in mud, the stores dilapidated… Meanwhile, the pumps continue bobbing up and down and the rain of dollars falls on Miraflores, the government palace, to be turned into superhighways and other cement monsters. Seventy percent of the country lives a totally marginal existence. In the cities an unconcerned, well-paid middle class stuffs itself with useless objects and makes a strident cult of imbecility and bad taste.

Blunt words, but it is hard to be offended by Galeano and Garmendia’s descriptions unless you are one of the oil elites or the middle-class “imbeciles” benefitting from these exploitative processes. Otherwise, the blatant inhumanity of the country’s economic inequality tramples all tendencies toward politeness. This inequality is what Venezuelans protested during the Caracazo, a popular uprising in Caracas and other cities in 1989, which the administration of President Carlos Andrés Pérez answered by dispatching security forces to murder hundreds of “forgotten people” who only enter the minds of the cities’ upper classes when they organize to oppose their privilege. It is what a young soldier named Hugo Chávez, inspired by revolutionary leaders such as Argentina’s Che Guevara, Peru’s Juan Velasco Alvarado, and China’s Mao Tse-tung, sought to challenge when he staged a failed coup in 1992 and declared, before being led off to prison, that the peoples’ struggle was over, “for now.”

Chávez’s coup attempt and his “for now” line made him a folk hero among the marginalized masses of Venezuela. By the late 1990s, he decided that electoralism was a more practical path for revolution and ran for president. He triumphed—a resounding victory for the so-called forgotten people and a grave threat to Global North business interests.

Supporters of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in the streets of Caracas. Photo by Juan Barreto/AFP.

Although he would not label himself as a socialist until 2007, Chávez always described his political project as Bolivarian, or modelled on Simón Bolívar’s ideas of regional cooperation and integration. The Bolivarian Revolution explicitly sought to limit the imperialistic role of the Global North in the economic decisions of Venezuela in particular and Latin America as a whole, while wielding the country’s wealth against the rampant inequality imposed by the US-supported capitalist system. To this end, Chávez forced multinational oil companies, which had previously paid as little as one percent in royalties, to become minority partners with the state oil company PdVSA. This led ExxonMobil and Petro-Canada to abandon the country in 2007. Furthermore, Chávez’s increased state role in gold extraction led to legal battles with Canadian mining companies such as Crystallex, Vanessa Ventures, Gold Reserve Inc., and Rusoro Mining. These policies caused dissatisfaction among multinational corporations, who were used to having their interests accommodated by their neoliberal allies within Latin America’s regional political systems. In 2007 Peter Munk, the founder of Barrick Gold and one of Canada’s premier capitalists, wrote a letter to the Financial Times in which he called Chávez a “dangerous dictator” and compared his actions to Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic, and even Adolf Hitler.

Chávez opposed the Free Trade Agreement for the Americas (FTAA) supported by American and Canadian business interests, which would have created a hemisphere-wide free market for multinational companies to exploit. In 2004, Cuba and Venezuela founded a new regional organization called the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), an “experiment of progressive and anti-imperialist governments, seeking ways to break the prevailing international order and strengthening the capacity of the people to face, together, the prevailing powers.” In 2005, support for the FTAA, North America’s neoliberal darling, collapsed at the Mar del Plata summit, while in the subsequent years ALBA expanded. In 2008, every nation on the South American continent (with the exception of French Guiana) signed the UNASUR Constitutive Treaty, thereby creating what Chávez described as “a political bloc that federates the 12 sovereign States of South America with the purpose of grouping them under what the Liberator Simón Bolívar called ‘a Nation of Republics.’” These two organizations, spearheaded by Venezuela, disrupted the process of capitalist globalization which had been advancing across the region since the 1993 passing of NAFTA, and to which only the Zapatista uprising in Mexico’s Chiapas region had presented a successful organized resistance.

The period between the collapse of the FTAA and the strengthening of these “new regionalist” organizations championed by Chávez was one in which an alternative to the neoliberal model pushed by Canada and the US emerged in Latin America and the Caribbean, and it is an alternative which the imperialist partners of North America have tirelessly attempted to smother.

Following the failed coup against Chávez in 2002, in which George W. Bush immediately recognized the unelected oligarch Pedro Carmona as president and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien remained conspicuously silent, North America began implementing less overtly undemocratic measures to constrain the growth of the Bolivarian Revolution. Their counterrevolution involved granting monetary and diplomatic support to opposition groups within Venezuela while seeking ways to undermine the integrationist goals of ALBA and UNASUR, including through the backing of right-wing coups in member states. In accordance with this strategy, Prime Ministers Chrétien, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper aggressively advocated bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) in the region in order to swing the balance of power back toward the north.

In 2005-06, the Canadian government provided $22,000 to the opposition group Súmate, described by Evo Golinger as “an anti-Chávez organization that receives extensive and substantial funding from the United States and is linked to the US government at the highest levels.” Súmate emerged in the aftermath of the failed coup and the collapse of the opposition-led oil strike of 2002-03. Although claiming to be an apolitical non-governmental organization concerned by Chávez’s supposedly anti-democratic tendencies, their director, María Corina Machado, was a supporter of the 2002 coup and a signed witness to the swearing-in of the Carmona government. Súmate attempted to whip up support for recall referendums that would have removed Chávez from the presidency, none of which were successful. Nevertheless, in 2005 Machado was invited to both Washington and Ottawa. No such invitation was extended to any representative of the Venezuelan government.

Unlike his predecessors, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2006-2015) was never able to contain his contempt for Chávez and his popular project. In a ridiculous statement criticizing both Chávez and other left-wing presidents across Latin America, Harper said that such leaders are “opposed to basically sound economic policies, want to go back to Cold War socialism [and] want to turn back the clock on the democratic progress that’s been made in the hemisphere.” Following Chávez’s death, Harper issued a statement essentially celebrating the demise of the champion of Venezuela’s marginalized communities. It reads, in part, “at this key juncture, I hope the people of Venezuela 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.” Harper’s statement is a national disgrace and drips with the institutionalized contempt of Canadian elites for the poor and oppressed masses of the world, whose uplifting necessitates a marginalization of the capital that has totally seized Canada’s democratic system.

In Canada in the World, Tyler Shipley sums up the brute nature of the country’s role succinctly: “Canada [has] actively participated in efforts to subvert and dismantle a process built by and for a large majority of Venezuelans. Doing so is, inescapably, imperialism.” While the Trudeau government has increased Canada’s involvement in reactionary efforts to overthrow the Bolivarian Revolution, this is not a unique feature of his Liberal administration. The preceding Harper government was very vocal about its hatred for Venezuela’s revolutionary process and deeply involved in efforts to undermine its success. At the time, the US and opposition forces had not yet laid the groundwork for more aggressive Global North involvement in the counterrevolution. By the time Trudeau took office, they had.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. His areas of interest include post-colonialism and the human impact of the global neoliberal economy. Follow him on Twitter @OwenSchalk.


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