John Ivison: Trudeau’s government returns to Venezuela with its idealism in tatters

It seems to be a rather odd time for Canada to be liberalizing relations with Venezuela, with Maduro threatening to annex part of another country

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Justin Trudeau’s government came to power in 2015 pledging to implement a foreign policy guided by democratic principles and human rights.

Nothing demonstrates the abject failure of its delivery on that promise quite like Venezuela.

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Media reports over the weekend suggested a significant reversal of the Liberals’ previous policy that would see Canada restore diplomatic relations with the government of Nicolas Maduro, a man who former foreign affairs minister (now finance minister) Chrystia Freeland once said was “fully entrenched as a dictator” after Venezuela’s 2018 presidential election, widely deemed to have been fixed.

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Bloomberg reported that Canada has now agreed to dispatch “low-ranking diplomats” to Caracas, although the final decision on re-establishing ties will depend on the Venezuelan government’s fulfilment of its promise to hold free elections next year.

Genevieve Tremblay, a spokesperson for Global Affairs, said in response to an inquiry from the National Post that Canada remains concerned about the crisis in Venezuela and has taken note of the “partial” political agreement signed between Maduro and the opposition parties in Barbados in October. “(But) Canada’s position of not recognizing the Maduro regime as the legitimate governing authority in Venezuela has not changed,” she said.

Despite the official denial, there are clear signs of rapprochement. “Canada remains prepared to engage with those with whom we disagree; officials are committed to work with appropriate actors to restore and reinforce democracy and human rights in Venezuela,” said Tremblay.

This is the language of “pragmatic diplomacy,” the doctrine introduced by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, which spurs Canada to establish relations with countries it may not agree with, but can be encouraged to engage in peace and security.

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Is Canada prepared to restore relations if Maduro does not allow opposition candidate Maria Corina Machado to run?

It is a long way from Freeland’s approach to Venezuela when she was in charge of Canada’s diplomacy. In April 2017 she was instrumental in creating the Lima Group, a multinational group of 12 countries, including Argentina, Mexico, Peru and Brazil, intent on putting pressure on Maduro. The group believed (rightly) that he was responsible for beggaring his country and repressing his own people, thanks to misguided policies like price controls, extrajudicial killings, politically inspired arrests and censorship.

After the illegitimate 2018 election, Canada and the Lima Group imposed sanctions on listed individuals and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president, a not particularly covert attempt at external regime change.

Maduro carried on, regardless, and when new left-wing governments were elected in Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico and Colombia, the Lima Group dissolved.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia also worked in his favour, as the U.S. sought to address high oil prices by boosting global flows. Much to the chagrin of Canadian producers, who pointed out that the Keystone XL pipeline could have supplied much of the increased demand by a country committed to decarbonization, the Biden administration eased restrictions on Venezuelan oil.

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Last month, the U.S. suspended all sanctions as a goodwill gesture, provided Maduro lived up to the deal he struck in Barbados to hold free elections in 2024.

The decision by the U.S., and apparently Canada, to restore relations, pending the release of Venezuelan political prisoners by the end of this month, is a very public acknowledgment that the previous policy has not worked. Aside from the oil issue, millions have fled Venezuela in recent years, creating a migration crisis throughout Central America that threatens regional stability

It certainly seems to make sense to change course if the one you are on leads down a cul-de-sac.

Louise Blais, a former senior Canadian diplomat at the United Nations and now expert-in-residence at Laval University, said the Lima Group was a disaster for Canada, since it divided Latin America and did more harm than good to Canada’s international position, especially after countries like Peru restored relations with Venezuela.

“External regime change should be avoided at all costs,” she said, a lesson the U.S. has been slow to learn. She said it deepened mistrust in countries like Venezuela and pushed it into the arms of China and Russia.

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But there have to be limits to “pragmatic diplomacy.” An earlier iteration of Liberal foreign policy under former minister Stéphane Dion, dubbed “responsible conviction,” restored relations with Iran and Russia, even after Vladimir Putin had invaded Crimea, on the grounds that Canada had “common interests” with Russia.

In Maduro’s case, while he reached a political agreement with his opponents, he did not agree to reinstate candidates who have been banned from public office.

That matters because the winner of the opposition presidential primary, Maria Corina Machado, has been banned from office since 2015. She swept the primary, winning 92 per cent of the more than two million votes cast. Is Canada prepared to restore relations if Maduro does not allow Machado to run? She has, after all, said that he must “face justice.”

The very real threat to Maduro’s presidency has yielded the classic response of the cornered dictator — the instigation of a regional conflict to rally patriotic support.

Maduro has scheduled a referendum for December 3 to pronounce on the territorial future of the Essequibo region of neighbouring Guyana, which Venezuela has coveted since gaining independence from Spain in 1811.

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The region accounts for two-thirds of Guyana’s territory and, in 2015, Exxon Mobil announced it had found commercial quantities of oil off the Essequibo coast.

The border was decided by international arbitrators in 1899 but Venezuela is now urging its citizens to reject that decision and call for the creation of a Venezuelan state in Essequibo.

Guyana has asked the International Court of Justice to halt the referendum, calling it an existential threat. Lawyers representing Guyana call Maduro’s policy blatant annexation, even though Venezuela has not explained how it would create a new state if voters back that option.

Guyana has asked the international court to rule on the legitimacy of the 1899 decision and judges accepted the case last April. But it will take years to pronounce, and Maduro may have taken matters into his own hands by then.

It seems to be a rather odd time for Canada to be liberalizing relations, and perhaps explains why Global Affairs hedged its bets in its official statement.

Blais acknowledged that restoring relations at this point might seem bizarre. “Yet, in fact it is the right decision to install eyes and ears on the ground at this critical time. It does not necessarily mean we approve of the regime or its policies,” she said. “If we still have an embassy in Moscow, we can have a presence in Caracas.”

It’s true, as Blais says, that if there are significant changes on the ground, the government can reassess and adjust.

It’s also true that keeping channels open is a diplomatic imperative.

But it rather feels like we are repeating Dion’s mistake of making nice with Putin, even as he plotted to take another bite out of Ukraine.

National Post

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