Venezuela's economic and political collapse forces Canada to choose sides
Tories, NDP want Canada to take action on Venezuela, but Liberals have yet to state intentions
Canada may soon have to choose sides as the Organization of American States prepares to vote on whether a sister nation has ceased to be democratic and should be suspended from the international body.
OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro of Uruguay left little doubt about his own opinions when he called Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro a "petty dictator" and a "traitor to his own people." (Maduro had already called Almagro "garbage" and "a CIA agent.")
Now, Almagro has issued a call to member states to assemble in Washington to begin a process leading to Venezuela's suspension, 17 years after former army officer Hugo Chavez launched his "Bolivarian Revolution."
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Almagro, a centre-left politician whose appointment was once welcomed by Venezuela, has called on Canada and other American nations to decide where they stand on the fate of a nation that increasingly resembles a failed state.
He's called an urgent session to be held in Washington before June 20, which he hopes will invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter against a government that he says has abandoned its constitutional order.
Canada signed the charter in 2001.
"The international defence of democracy is essential," Almagro reminded member states in a letter. "Countries create their own international and domestic obligations by signing on to these treaties."
A country on the precipice
Venezuela is a tropical country blessed with vast, fertile lands that is unable to feed itself. A nation with the largest proven oil reserves in the world that is unable to keep the lights on.
By any measure, Venezuela's long, exhausting decline is now turning into a full-fledged collapse. Food riots and looting are daily occurrences.
Government employees now work only two days a week to save power. Rolling blackouts leave millions in the dark each day.
The country has the world's highest inflation rate — over 700 per cent. It now requires a briefcase-full of cash to buy a meal in a decent restaurant in Caracas — except that no one in their right mind would ever carry a bag of cash through the streets of Caracas. Every year now, Venezuela loses 0.1 per cent of its population to murder. The country's homicide rate is about 60 times that of Canada.
Life for ordinary Venezuelans now revolves around hours-long lineups to obtain strictly rationed basic supplies such as cooking oil and corn flour.
Maduro, the president, is a former bus driver who claims Chavez sends him messages from beyond the grave via a small bird. He says Venezuela's crippling shortages are the product of an economic war waged by the country's elite to defeat the revolution.
His response has been to send soldiers into factories and supermarkets, and even to arrest their owners.
Last December, Venezuela's opposition won two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly, and the ruling Socialist Party responded by setting up a parallel "National Communal Parliament" of unelected party loyalists.
The opposition then collected 1.85 million signatures to start the process for a recall referendum, about 10 times the number required by the constitution. But the government, backed by a Supreme Court and Electoral Commission also stacked with party loyalists, has simply refused to accept the petition.
Last month, Maduro said that it was "just a matter of time before [the National Assembly] disappears."
Last Tuesday, the leader of the National Assembly's opposition bloc, Julio Borges, was brutally beaten with a metal pipe by government supporters as he entered the National Electoral Commission, while police looked on.
On Saturday, President Maduro appeared to acknowledge that the petition met the constitutional threshold, a sign of the pressure he is feeling from other American nations. But he told a crowd of party loyalists it is now too late to organize a recall referendum this year.
'Crackdown is only escalating'
Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement spent three days in Caracas at the end of April on an observer mission with the former presidents of Bolivia and El Salvador. He was prevented from seeing the city's elected mayor, Antonio Ledezma, who is being held under house arrest.
He also visited the National Assembly. "When we entered the chamber, the Chavista deputies all got up and walked out on us," he told CBC News.
"My own judgment is that the clashes and conflagrations are only going to get worse. There's no medicine, no food. The crackdown is only escalating."
Argentina's President Mauricio Macri had promised during his election campaign last November to push for Venezuela's expulsion from international bodies unless it released its 2,000 political prisoners, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
On the night he won Argentina's election in November 2015, Macri appeared on stage with Lilian Tintori, wife of the jailed Lopez, in a gesture that convinced many in Venezuela's opposition they had found a new champion.
Their hopes were dashed early this month when Argentina, which holds the chair of the OAS Permanent Council, proposed a compromise motion to encourage dialogue between the ruling party that controls the levers of power in Venezuela and the opposition, many of whom are languishing in the regime's prisons.
At the same time, two Venezuelan government officials travelled to Ottawa to meet with André Frenette, director general for Latin America at Global Affairs Canada. A spokesman for Global Affairs says the visit by Ricardo Moreno (Venezuela's director general for North American affairs) and Marie Borregales (co-ordinator for Canada) was "a normal step to maintain effective bilateral relations with the government of Venezuela".
Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion and Frenette also met with four opposition senators.
But after hearing both, Canada supported the dialogue motion backed by the government of Venezuela.
Almagro denounced that position as an attempt to avoid taking real action. In a letter he sent to member states including Canada, he quoted the words of Desmond Tutu: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."
As for the Argentine president's about-face, media there have reported that was the result of a deal in which Argentina agreed to protect Venezuela at the OAS, in return for Venezuela's backing for Argentina's Susana Malcorra as next Secretary General of the United Nations.
Canada's intentions unclear
Venezuela's opposition sees Canada's vote as important because it is perceived as a neutral party, unlike the U.S. — which carries considerable interventionist baggage in Latin America — or Latin governments that tend to be identified with one side or the other in the Venezuelan conflict.
"Canada is closely watching events in Venezuela," said Austin Jean, spokesman for Global Affairs. "We stand ready to provide constructive help. Our desire is to see an end to the suffering of the Venezuelan people. We call on Venezuela's government to act in the best interest of its citizens and to seek the support of neighbours, particularly through the OAS, to improve the situation."
Jean did not say whether Canada would vote to invoke the Democratic Charter against Venezuela, although the voices calling on it to do so are coming from the left as well as the right.
Like Clement, the NDP's foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière says the Liberal government should support Almagro:
"Canada, as a member of the OAS, should support his efforts," says Laverdière.
"The Venezuelan people deserve peace, security and true democracy. We urge the government of Canada to assist in finding a political solution and defend democracy in Venezuela."
- Due to a technical error, an unedited version of this story was published prematurely. This is an edited and updated version.Jun 12, 2016 11:35 PM ET