Canada condemns Venezuela's 'undemocratic' vote but is not ready to follow U.S. sanctions yet

The Liberal government has denounced Sunday’s vote for a new legislative superbody in Venezuela that gives President Nicolas Maduro sweeping powers but will not follow the Trump administration in imposing sanctions for now, a government official said Monday.

Government is continuing to monitor the situation and consider its options, says official

In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro shows his ballot after casting a vote for a constitutional assembly in Caracas on Sunday. (Miraflores Press Office/Associated Press)

The Liberal government denounced Sunday's vote for a new legislative superbody in Venezuela that gives President Nicolas Maduro sweeping powers to reshape the country's political system but will not follow the Trump administration in imposing sanctions against the Venezuelan president, a government official said Monday.

The U.S. government branded Maduro "a dictator" Monday and announced that it's freezing his U.S. assets, following the controversial poll.

"Yesterday's [Sunday's] illegitimate elections confirm that Maduro is a dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuelan people," said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. "By sanctioning Maduro, the United States makes clear our opposition to the policies of his regime and our support for the people of Venezuela who seek to return their country to a full and prosperous democracy."

Canada commends the U.S. action, said a Canadian official speaking on background.

"Their sanctions regime makes it easier for them to act swiftly, but we continue to review [the U.S.] sanctions, monitor the situation and evaluate our options," the official said.

Canadian sanctions on foreign countries are imposed under two acts of Parliament: the United Nations Act and the Special Economic Measures Act through an Order in Council. 

According to Venezuela's electoral council, more than eight million people — 41.53 per cent of eligible voters — voted on Sunday to create a constitutional assembly endowing the ruling Socialist Party with sweeping powers.

However, Venezuela's opposition estimated the real turnout was less than half the official figures.

Maduro's allies won all 545 seats in the newly elected National Constituent Assembly, which will have the power to rewrite the country's constitution, dissolve state institutions, such as the opposition-run Congress, and dismiss dissident state officials.

Canada appeals for calm

Maduro has said the new assembly will begin to govern within a week. He vowed to use the assembly's powers to bar opposition candidates from running in gubernatorial elections in December unless they sit with his party to negotiate an end to hostilities that in four months of protests have resulted in the deaths of least 125 people and thousands injured or detained.

"This constituent assembly will further escalate tensions in the country by robbing the Venezuelan people of their fundamental democratic rights," Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement on Sunday.

A demonstrator uses a slingshot as clashes break out while the Constituent Assembly election was being carried out in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)

"Canada laments the loss of life and escalating violence that resulted from [Sunday's] undemocratic vote. We once again appeal for calm and for constructive negotiations."

Canada along with several allies at the Organization of American States (OAS), including the U.S., had called on the Maduro government to cancel Sunday's vote. However, several Caribbean countries, as well as Venezuela's regional allies such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, refused to join the U.S.–led initiative.

With Sunday's vote President Maduro and his government took "another step down the path to institutionalize authoritarian rule in Venezuela," Freeland said.

"Individuals who are undermining democracy and human rights in Venezuela should be held accountable for their actions," she said.

Opposition want Liberals to do more

Both the Conservatives and New Democrats want the federal government to do more. 

"Everything she's saying is in line with Canada's support for a free and fair vote as soon as possible and rejection of this phoney Constituent Assembly, which is really a way of rigging single-party, single autocrat power," said Conservative MP Peter Kent, the party's foreign affairs critic. "Our quibble is that it doesn't go far enough."

Freeland's support for OAS secretary general Luis Almagro's program to deal with the crisis in Venezuela is a good first step, but Canada can do more, Kent said.

"We could do more on the humanitarian side, and we could certainly do more in joining other democratic countries who have already imposed new sanctions on Venezuela or have committed to do so if yesterday's election actually took place and the government moved forward to replace the legitimately elected members of the National Assembly," Kent said.

Hélène Laverdière, the foreign affairs critic for the New Democratic Party, said the NDP remains deeply concerned about the human cost of the ongoing political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, which has hit ordinary people hard with shortages of food and medicine.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks to supporters in Caracas on Sunday. (Miraflores Palace/Reuters)

"On the heels of Sunday's illegitimate constituent assembly vote, it's more important than ever for Canada to work with our allies and through multilateral groups like the OAS to secure a lasting resolution to the crisis," Laverdière said in an emailed statement.

"We would like to see the government be more active in providing humanitarian assistance, calling for the release of political prisoners, the holding of elections and respecting the National Assembly."

Canada could also boost funding to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which was cut by the previous Conservative government, Laverdière said.

A victory for democracy?

Raul Burbano, program director at Common Frontiers, a working group of Canadian labour and civil rights organizations, said Canada's position is one-sided and misinformed.

"I think the outcome was a victory for democracy in Venezuela. More than eight million people cast their votes for different members of the constituent assembly," Burbano said in a phone interview from Toronto.

"It showed that despite Venezuela being in the middle of violence and threats from the opposition of anybody who went out to vote, with a difficult economic situation, with a co-ordinated international attack by media presenting Venezuela in a very unsavoury light, many Venezuelans still took to the streets to participate peacefully, democratically, in a way that will determine the future for Venezuela going forward."

Security forces face off against demonstrators while clashes break out during the Constituent Assembly election in Caracas, Sunday. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

While Burbano agrees that there is a large and peaceful opposition to the socialist policies of the Maduro government, he argues that the opposition movement has been hijacked by a small group of radical actors who have resorted to violence to advance their goals.

"Unfortunately, those are the groups right now that sort of are running the opposition, that have the unconditional support from the United States from the funding perspective, political perspective, and I think this is why we're seeing so much violence and so much division in Venezuela," Burbano said.   

Canada's position, too, echoes the demands of these radical opposition groups, he said.

"Just to suggest that for some reason it's bad that the Venezuelans undertake a participatory democratic process on a national basis when there is a crisis in the country socially and politically, that is completely absurd," Burbano said.

The Canadian government has also called on Maduro to immediately release all political prisoners, restore the constitutional rights of Venezuelans and set an electoral calendar.

"The government must enter into meaningful negotiations with the opposition to meet these obligations without delay," Freeland said.

Maduro, however, has vowed that presidential elections will be held in at the end of 2018 "come rain, thunder or lightning in Venezuela."

He has yet to announce the exact date.