Can Canada lead on Latin America? Venezuela poses a test.
As Canada hosts an international meeting Monday aimed at ending the presidency of Venezuela’s embattled Nicolás Maduro, it faces charges in both Venezuela and at home that it’s acting as a lackey of the United States.
But amid the power struggle that’s playing out in the restive Andean nation, many see Canada rising as a different kind of hemispheric leader – one that could help shift the familiar narrative of interventionist America.
When opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself the interim president of Venezuela last week, with the country mired in humanitarian crisis, the US immediately recognized him as the country’s new leader. So did Canada, along with several Latin American countries. But there the similarities end.
The Trump administration has been forging an aggressive path against Mr. Maduro. It has threatened military intervention, both in veiled and direct terms. On Monday the US announced sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, in a bid to stanch cash flow to the Maduro regime.
Ottawa, in contrast, has been playing the sort of multilateral role that used to be a US staple on the world stage. It has been working within the Lima Group, a 14-member bloc of Latin American nations and Canada that was formed in 2017 to try to resolve Venezuela’s crisis. The group contains a wide variety of viewpoints – and specifically does not include the US, so as to avoid the appearance of “Yankee” intervention.
And as the Trump administration has alienated so many in the hemisphere, raising questions globally about its commitment to democracy and rule of law, Ottawa’s position has become ever more important – even if misunderstood at home.
Because both Canada and the US are looking to end Maduro’s presidency, “Canadians assume we are doing the same thing” tactically, says Ben Rowswell, a former Canadian ambassador to Venezuela. “But in fact we’re not doing the same thing at all.” He says it’s time that Canada be more explicit about that.
‘This is our neighborhood’
Canadian-Latin American relations have not been top of the agenda in Canada or Latin America, says Nicolás Saldías, a researcher at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. But he says that is starting to change.
Born in Uruguay and raised in Canada, Mr. Saldías says Canada is increasingly recognized as a champion of human rights – lending an important voice in Venezuela. “Canada in Latin America is respected in a way the US would never be respected,” he says. “Because Canada is not seen as an interventionist country. It doesn’t have the history of actively supporting coup d’etats, it doesn’t seem to have the type of interest the US has.” He has called for Canada to increase its acceptance of Venezuelan refugees, as it has Syrian refugees, showing its humanitarian commitment beyond political rhetoric.
Though it has long been involved in the Americas, Canada is taking up a more leading diplomatic role in the Venezuelan crisis. “This is our neighborhood,” Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, told reporters this week after announcing the Feb. 4 Lima Group meeting in Ottawa, calling Venezuela a top foreign policy priority.
That position has been met with praise and disapproval in opinion columns across Canada. Some call it a selective meddling in sovereign affairs, and blind support to an interested US. The leftist opposition party NDP called for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to part ways with Trump and Brazil’s populist, right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro on the issue.
It’s in this context that Canada should be emphasizing how it differs from US positions on Venezuela, argues Mr. Rowswell. He says Canada has played a key role in democracy-building in the region since joining – albeit late – the Organization of American States in 1990, but few Canadians pay attention. “There do seem to be quite a lot of voices in Canada that are genuinely confused about what Canada’s trying to accomplish in Latin America,” he says, “because they can’t see past the United States.”
In recent history, Canada did not need to differentiate itself from the US, including under former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. “But now that there’s really such a marked departure from the principles of human rights and democracy from the current US administration,” Rowswell argues, “the restraint that we show in not distinguishing ourselves from the United States I think undermines the leadership role that we have in Latin America.”
For starters, he says, in contrast to the unilateral decisions and threats coming from the Trump administration, Canada’s work on the Lima Group exemplifies its multilateral approach to foreign affairs. And it is building consensus with Latin American countries in the lead. The group had already declared Maduro’s re-election bid illegitimate, bolstering its support for Guaidó.
A risky move?
Yet the legality of Guaidó’s move is far from clear in many minds. European nations took a different approach, saying on Jan. 26 that if Maduro did not call elections within eight days, they would recognize Guaido. Mexico and Uruguay are among Latin American countries that have not recognized Guaidó, calling for a conference of neutral nations next week to jumpstart peace talks in Venezuela.
Jean Daudelin, a specialist on Latin America at Carleton University in Ottawa, says Canada has taken a gamble given some of the legal murkiness, particularly if the plan backfires and Venezuela plunges into civil conflict.
“Canada could have let neighbors in Latin America and the Americans especially go hard ball, and Canada could have played a role intermediating,” he says. “I think that taking such gambles may hurt our ability not just to play bridge-builders in the future, but also it may weaken our claim to being defenders of the rule of law in international affairs.”
Canada is outside familiar territory, but that could add legitimacy to its position, says Philip Oxhorn, a professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal.
“What is unprecedented about what is happening today in Venezuela is that Canada, as well as a number of other countries, chose one leader who has a marginally better claim to legitimacy than the current one,” he says. “Ironically that is one of the reasons Canada can add some credibility and hopefully level-headedness to the whole process. Because if the Canadians support it, then it’s really unique. They would be one of the countries that would be the last to support this kind of position historically.”
Canada carries baggage in Latin America, particularly due to Canadian mining corporations in the region that have been accused of human rights violations. But in the geopolitical tug of war, it’s seen as one of the more disinterested players.
“Canada’s position appears to be genuinely motivated by a desire for democracy promotion and regional stability,” says Robert Muggah, a political scientist from Canada who co-founded the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro. He says Canada does not stand to gain materially from regime change in Venezuela, especially as it lacks pipeline capacity to make up for Venezuelan oil shortfalls. The US, meanwhile, is eyeing "geostrategic advantage in its backyard," he says. "The Chinese and Russians, both of which are heavily invested in, among other things, oil production, refining, and retail, would lose.”
The role of the Lima Group
Those Venezuelans fighting the Maduro regime simply want him out, as 3 million Venezuelans have fled facing hunger, violence, and repression. Isaac Nahon-Serfaty, a board member of the Canada Venezuela Democracy Forum, says it is important that the Lima Group represents mostly Latin American nations, and he sees Canada’s support as part of the solution. But he also sees the value of US pressure, despite misgivings about the Trump administration.
“Historically, we Latin Americans reject this notion of having a superpower intervening in the politics in our country,” he says. “But what we need to appreciate here is the only way this situation will change is through pressure of the international community. We need the US to be part of this political pressure.”
But some worry that the US, under the unpredictable Trump administration, is undermining the work of the Lima Group by being so outspoken, including through communications like US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s reference to “5,000 troops to Colombia,” which borders Venezuela, photographed on his notepad during a briefing this week.
“The United States is doing the worst possible thing,” says Saldías. “It's creating the impression that if you support Guaidó then you’re supporting this absurd policy of the United States government. That’s dragging down the Lima Group.”
Saldías says if the Lima Group doesn’t take a stand, it runs the risk of bolstering critics who say the US is, once again, the puppetmaster. “The US isn’t part of the Lima Group, and the [Lima Group] needs to say, ‘You’re delegitimizing Guaidó and you’re delegitimizing us.’ ”