Canada considers new international push to oust Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro

Canada is considering convening a high-level Lima Group meeting after the Venezuelan opposition defeated a government attempt to replace Juan Guaido as head of the National Assembly.

Ottawa hopes to rally allies for new effort to support Venezuelan Opposition Leader Juan Guaido

Venezuelan Opposition Leader Juan Guaido argues for National Guards to let him and all opposition lawmakers into the National Assembly, saying he will not enter unless all of them are allowed entry, outside the legislature in Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan. 7, 2020 (Matias Delacroix/The Associated Press)

Canada is considering convening a high-level meeting of the Lima Group to refocus efforts to bring about a democratic transition in Venezuela following days of drama at the National Assembly in Caracas. 

The man Canada considers Venezuela's legitimate president, Juan Guaido, was able to take his seat in the legislature this month in spite of attempts by the government of Nicolas Maduro to keep him out.

And the move to prevent opposition deputies from taking their seats by surrounding the building with police appeared to backfire on Maduro, when it was condemned by Latin American governments normally considered sympathetic to Venezuela's "Bolivarian revolution."

A Canadian official speaking on background told CBC News that Ottawa interprets the decision of the Mexican government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to sign one of two Lima Group statements condemning the Maduro government as a sign that the hemispheric coalition Ottawa helped build to oppose Maduro hasn't completely fractured.

Venezuelan paramilitary police used force to try to keep the opposition majority out of the National Assembly, injuring four deputies slightly and tearing Opposition Leader Guaido's suit jacket. But they seemed reluctant to go beyond pushing, shoving, and trying to bar doors.

When a crush of opposition deputies finally succeeded in pushing open the main door of the legislative palace, police gave way.

Guaido and his supporters — all elected in the last Venezuelan election to be recognized by Canada as legitimate — rushed into the chamber and quickly swore Guaido into office for a second term as president of the National Assembly.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro waves as he arrives at the National Constituent Assembly's building during the celebration rally of the 20th anniversary of the Venezuelan Constitution in Caracas, Venezuela, on Dec. 15, 2019. (Matias Delacroix/The Associated Press)

The opposition has argued that, under Venezuela's constitution, Guaido's role as assembly president also makes him president of the republic, because the claims to office of Maduro and his vice-president, Delcy Rodriguez, are based on the results of a fraudulent election in 2018. Canada, which also rejected the results of the 2018 election, supports that position.

The Maduro regime's reluctance to use greater force against the pro-Guaido deputies may reflect the fact that the U.S. has repeatedly warned Venezuela that any move to arrest or harm Guaido would cross a red line.

"I think you would see even additional action far beyond what we have pushed out to date" if there were a move to detain Guaido, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Cuba and Venezuela Carrie Filipetti, told reporters at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia on Tuesday.

Maduro's allies

The events cap a year in which the opposition began strongly, but then seemed to lose momentum, as regional shifts of power brought cracks to the Lima Group alliance of nations.

The Lima Group was set up in August 2017 in response to a violent crackdown on dissent in Venezuela. It united Canada with the biggest nations of Latin America: Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia, but excluded the United States.

That exclusion reflected an important difference of opinion: the U.S. was unwilling to rule out the use of military force to eject the Maduro government, while Lima Group members said they were committed to peaceful change.

In this Feb. 2, 2019 file photo, anti-government protesters take part in a nationwide demonstration demanding the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela. (Rodrigo Abd/The Associated Press)

Taken together, the Lima Group governments and the U.S. represented about 95 per cent of the people of the hemisphere, while the Maduro government enjoyed the support of a handful of smaller nations: Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and El Salvador (along with Russia and China).

But 2019 would bring changes that took some of the heat off Maduro. 

When Guaido took the presidential oath on Jan. 23, 2019, he received an avalanche of recognition from about 60 countries. Canada was the second to extend recognition, but Lima Group founding member Mexico, the world's most populous Spanish-speaking country, held back.

That was because eight weeks before Guaido's assumption, a new president had taken Mexico in a new, leftward, direction. President Andres Lopez Obrador (often known as AMLO) replaced Enrique Peña Nieto, whose government had a mostly positive relationship with the Trudeau government and was an early backer of the Lima Group.

AMLO gave an early sign that Mexico's position would be changing when he invited Maduro to personally attend his inauguration.

Another Lima Group dropout was Argentina, where voters turned against Trudeau ally Mauricio Macri, and restored to power a Peronist government that has historically been close to Maduro and former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (and had once received a suitcase full of cash as an illegal campaign contribution from its friends in Caracas). 

The inauguration of that new government last month effectively took Argentina out of the Lima Group.

Region condemns the move

But the decision to bar elected deputies from their seats seems to have been a bridge too far for some of Maduro's Latin American allies.

Mexico's Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard joined the chorus of condemnation over this week's attempted closure of Venezuela's elected assembly, saying "the legitimate functioning of the legislative branch is an inviolable pillar of democracies."

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, pictured on Jan. 12, invited Maduro to attend his inauguration. (Christian Chavez/The Associated Press)

Argentina's Foreign Minister Felipe Sola condemned the closure of the National Assembly as "exactly the opposite" of what the Maduro government should be doing.

"To use force to prevent the functioning of the National Assembly is to condemn oneself to international isolation. We reject this," wrote Sola.

Diosdado Cabello, a leading figure of the Maduro government and host of a nightly program on Venezuelan state television, denounced the former allies in harsh terms.

"If the ambassador of Argentina or Mexico said some 'Guai-idiocy', we're still here and we don't need Argentina or its foreign minister. They'll see where they end up in history. Whether they choose to defend the people, or if they choose to be on the side of those who live slavishly following imperialism," said Cabello.

Meanwhile U.S. Special Envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams appeared to exult in the new divisions among governments that had previously supported Maduro. "Maduro must be asking himself today, 'Do I have any allies left?' (Argentina and Mexico) are not going to support those kinds of measures. They're going to denounce those kinds of measures.

"He is left with Cuba, Russia, China, and a few odd dictatorships around the world, but he is losing the support not only on the right, not only in the centre, but on the left in Latin America."

If the Maduro government's new allies proved disappointing, the regime also lost some of its strongest old allies. President Evo Morales of Bolivia — perhaps the closest Maduro ally after the Cuban Communist Party — fled his country in November following violent protests alleging electoral fraud.

Opposition troubles

But if this month's events seemed to turn in Guaido's favour, it doesn't change the fact that Maduro remains in control not only of Miraflores, the presidential palace, but also of the country's armed forces and national police.

People have continued to flee Venezuela at a rate of about 3,000 to 5,000 per day, said William Spindler of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Panama.

"The latest figures we have are for December 5," he told CBC News, adding that the number of 4,769,000 Venezuelan refugees is almost certainly an underestimate "because it counts only those who have registered with governments."

Canada has also received several thousand Venezuelan asylum claims.

Opposition Leader Juan Guaido waves as he leaves a speaking event with supporters in the Montalban neighbourhood of Caracas on Saturday. Venezuelans are deciding whether to heed Guaido's call for a new round of protests amid skepticism that he can still mobilize large numbers. (Matias Delacroix/The Associated Press)

Despite the humanitarian crisis, the opposition has been hurt by corruption scandals. About 10 members of the opposition bloc in the assembly, once 110 members strong, have switched sides to support the government.

Deputies have not been paid in almost four years, and some say they have received offers of payments between $750,000 and $1 million US from deputies loyal to the Maduro government if they agree to "jump the gate" as Venezuelans refer to changing sides in the country's polarized political conflict.

Many current and former opposition deputies are in exile, in prison, in hiding, or have sought refuge in foreign embassies to avoid arrest.

Luis Parra was expelled from Guaido's party after he was implicated by Venezuelan investigative news site Armandoinfo.com for a campaign to help regime-affiliated businessmen escape sanctions for their role in profiteering from Venezuela's hunger crisis.

Congressmen who wrote letters on behalf of those businessmen are known in Venezuela as the "CLAP deputies." (Venezuela's food rationing program is known by its Spanish acronym CLAP, and the monthly rations that millions of Venezuelans depend on are called "CLAP boxes.")

Guaido and other opposition leaders moved swiftly to expel the CLAP deputies, but the scandal nonetheless disillusioned Venezuelans weary of the venality of their political class.

The failure to deliver on the high hopes of change he sparked last year has also chipped away at Guaido's approval rate, which fell from over 60 per cent in Spring to about 40 per cent by the end of 2019, according to respected Caracas polling agency Datanalisis. (Maduro's approval is lower — about 14 per cent according to the same pollster.)

But there are signs a renewed effort could be underway. 

Just before Christmas, the U.S. Senate passed the VERDAD Act (Venezuela Emergency Relief, Democracy Assistance, and Development Act of 2019), which assigns $400 million US to the Venezuelan opposition and to humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans both inside and outside the country.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.