Selective indignation: Why the Trudeau government needs to reassess its relationships in Latin America

The Trudeau government's foreign policy has made Canada some embarrassing allies in Latin America during Chrystia Freeland's tenure as foreign affairs minister, something her successor François-Philippe Champagne needs to address.

Liberals' foreign policy has made Canada some embarrassing allies

Former Canadian foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland takes part in a closing press conference with members of the Lima Group following the 10th ministerial meeting of the organization in Ottawa on Feb. 4. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by John Kirk, a professor of Latin American studies at Dalhousie University and author or co-editor of 18 books on Latin America, and Stephen Kimber, a professor of journalism at the University of King's College and author of nine books, including the award-winning What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Now that Canada has a new foreign minister, we should rethink aspects of our foreign policy, particularly in volatile Latin America.

Whatever former minister Chrystia Freeland's successes in international trade, she made some embarrassing choices of allies in Latin America, while offering selective indignation and ham-handed attempts to impose her will in response to complex political dilemmas in countries like Venezuela and, more recently, Bolivia.

For example, Canada led the so-called Lima Group, an ad hoc 14-country body ostensibly set up in August 2017 to "address the critical situation in Venezuela and explore ways to contribute to the restoration of democracy."

Before we consider what the Lima Group actually accomplished there, it's worth reminding ourselves who we jumped into bed with. The Lima Group includes some of the worst human rights abusers in the hemisphere, many of whom play fast and loose with constitutional niceties.

Start with Honduras. Its president, Juan Orlando, whose brother was found guilty in New York of trafficking cocaine, has been accused of receiving drug money to support his re-election. In 2017, he skirted a constitutional ban on running for re-election.

Peru? In October, president Martin Vizcarra dismissed his entire cabinet, dissolved Congress and called for new elections, thereby eliminating the opposition's majority in the legislature.

In Chile, millions of protestors took to the streets last month to protest social inequities.  The government responded by brutally repressing demonstrators. Two dozen have been killed so far. There are more than  1,000 cases of alleged abuses by the security forces, and 230 people have lost their sight after being hit by pellets fired by the military.

Police detain demonstrators during a protest against Chile's government in Santiago on Nov. 21. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Circling back, what did Canada and the Lima Group really achieve in Venezuela?

They didn't simply question the legitimacy of the results of the controversial 2018 election that returned President Nicolas Maduro to power. They attempted to orchestrate a coup to replace Maduro with Juan Guaidó, a previously unknown National Assembly deputy who, not coincidentally, was Washington's choice for Venezuelan president.

That coup failed, leaving ordinary Venezuelans in a more desperate state today than before Freeland and her so-called democratic Latin American allies decided to interfere in that country's affairs.

Despite that ongoing embarrassment, Canada made almost the same mis-step again last week. Global Affairs Canada announced it would work with and support Bolivia's self-declared new president, Jeanine Áñez, a woman with a history of hostility to Bolivia's indigenous people.

On Oct. 20, the government of Evo Morales was either ­— depending on your perspective —overthrown in a coup or resigned after electoral irregularities.

Most observers agree Morales finished first in initial balloting, but there were disputes about whether his ultimate margin of victory was really sufficient to avoid a run-off.

People confront riot police in La Paz on Nov. 21 during the funeral procession for eight supporters of Bolivia's ex-President Evo Morales, killed when security forces lifted a siege on a fuel plant. Bolivia's interim president, Jeanine Anez, asked Congress Wednesday to approve a law that would allow for new elections in the wake of deadly unrest. (Aizar Raldes/AFP via Getty Images)

Although Morales had accepted an Organization of American States' recommendation that he hold fresh elections, powerful Bolivian military leaders "urged" him to seek asylum abroad instead.

To avoid bloodshed, he did.

So did other elected officials. The Senate president — constitutionally the next in line for Morales' job — has remained in Bolivia, but has boycotted the assembly sessions because of the coup.

That gave opposition parliamentarian Áñez an opening to claim the presidency for herself. On Nov. 12, in an almost empty Senate chamber, she was sworn in. Two telling symbols: a military leader placed the presidential sash on her shoulders. And Áñez proudly held aloft an extremely large bible. She declared indigenous religious traditions — which she describes as "satanic" — were no longer welcome in a country with an overwhelmingly indigenous population.

While Canada did not immediately officially recognize Áñez, as it had Guaidó, it did agree to support her and work with her — not only looking the other way at her undemocratic power grab, but also providing tacit acquiescence to her racism and open hostility to Bolivia's indigenous peoples.

Bolivia's new president Jeanine Áñez, left, and former president Evo Morales. (Marco Bello, Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

On the streets of Bolivia, there have been fierce battles. So far, at least 24 are reported dead and more than 700 wounded. Bolivia's interim government has issued a decree guaranteeing impunity for the armed forces and police, exempting them from criminal responsibility in any actions taken against protestors.

The situation can only deteriorate as polarization grows.

UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has criticized the "unnecessary or disproportionate use of force," while the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights has condemned abuses by the military.

Canada's response?

Global Affairs Canada called for everyone to "exercise restraint and avoid violence and confrontation," while noting "Canada stands with Bolivia and the democratic will of its people."

Really? There has been no mention in any official statement condemning the military's overthrow of the Bolivian government.

In fact, the opposite has been true. Canada has turned a blind eye to the criminal abuses by Bolivia's security forces. As it did in Chile.

Demonstrators march in front of la Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, during a protest against the government on Nov. 21. Chile's police said Tuesday they had suspended the use of birdshot during street protests amid an outcry over eye injuries suffered by demonstrators. (Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images)

Under Freeland's tenure, unfortunately, this has become Canada's standard Latin American operating procedure.

Our silence on the widespread abuse of human rights by fellow members of the Lima Group in Chile, Honduras and Peru — not to forget Colombia and Guatemala — speaks volumes, as has our eagerness to impose our will, undemocratically, on countries like Venezuela and Bolivia.

Freeland's departure from the foreign affairs portfolio in this week's cabinet shuffle is an opportunity. Her replacement, François-Philippe Champagne, should use that opportunity to reconsider how well our behaviour in Latin America aligns with our self-image of Canada as an honest broker in the world.

  • This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


  • When originally published, this story included a widely circulated image of a tweet reportedly sent from Jeanine Añez's account in 2013. Her supporters have questioned its veracity. The tweet no longer appears on her account, and CBC News was unable to independently verify the tweet's authenticity.
    Nov 23, 2019 1:45 PM ET


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