As Lima Group meets in Canada, Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro prepares for war

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland will host counterparts from across the Western Hemisphere on Monday in an effort to co-ordinate strategies on a goal they already agree on: the end of Nicolas Maduro's government in Venezuela.

Countries are choosing sides in Venezuela's high-stakes political crisis

Anti-government protesters hold Venezuelan flags as they block a highway to demand the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Saturday. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland hosted counterparts from across the Western Hemisphere on Monday as the so-called Lima Group met in Ottawa in an effort to co-ordinate strategies on a goal they already agree on: the end of Nicolas Maduro's government in Venezuela and new elections to be held under an administration headed by the self-declared interim president, Juan Guaido.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with Guaido by phone

But the Lima Group will be meeting without a country that had been, until January, one of its more important members.

Mexico is still nominally part of the group, but its new left-leaning president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, showed on his first day in office that he had a very different view of the Venezuelan situation than his predecessor by inviting Nicolas Maduro to attend his inauguration in Mexico City last December.

Since then, Mexico has taken a somewhat ambivalent attitude. It's reluctant to alienate the majority of the hemisphere that has rejected Maduro's legitimacy, including both of its NAFTA 2.0 partners and all major nations of South America. 

Competing groups, competing meetings

Mexico also won't attend another meeting being hosted by an entirely different group of nations on Tuesday in Montevideo, Uruguay.

The European Union's foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, says that meeting will launch a new "international contact group." It will be attended by an EU representative, ministers from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the U.K., as well as Latin American counterparts from Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Uruguay.

What common approach that group might find remains a mystery. It includes European countries that gave Maduro a deadline to call new elections or lose recognition — a deadline that expired Sunday night — and also Bolivia, whose President Evo Morales is one of Maduro's most fervent supporters.

Of the four Latin American members of the new group, Ecuador and Costa Rica have recognized Guaido, while Bolivia and Uruguay continue to recognize Maduro.

Invasion fever in Venezuela

On Sunday here in Venezuela, Maduro attended the latest in a string of almost daily military exercises, this one staged by naval commandos on the coast of Aragua state.

A group of about 100 soldiers, crouched on their haunches on the beach at Turiamo on Venezuela's central coast, chanted the slogan: "Always loyal! Never traitors!"

One naval commando pinned a medal on Maduro's chest while the two men shouted the slogan together. 

Each new day in Venezuela brings a new choreographed display of military loyalty to Maduro, and an escalation in the rhetoric of imminent invasion by outside forces led by the United States.

"We are in a time of defence of our independence," Maduro told the marines, pacing in front of them on the beach with a microphone. "To be or not to be, said the great Shakespeare, to be a nation, or to be a colony; to be of Venezuela, or to be nothing; to be a united people and armed forces, or to be disintegration; to be the future and the present, or to be the disappearance of this dream that's more than 200 years old: Venezuela."

Little appetite for war

There is only one country that has seriously discussed the possibility of using armed force to displace Maduro: the U.S. under the Trump administration.

Justin Trudeau's government has consistently opposed the idea.

"I think it's far too premature to have any discussion regarding any type of military actions," Canada's Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan reiterated Friday on CBC's Power and Politics. "We need to allow the diplomatic space and the experts to be able to move forward."

Colombia, certainly the best-placed country geographically to intervene in Venezuela, has also made it clear war is not an option.

"I have never mentioned recourse to war-like methods. That would play into the hands of the dictator who imagines and demonizes the threat of military intervention to wind up patriotic sentiments and cling to power," said Colombian President Ivan Duque.

The Trump administration continues to stand alone in suggesting such an option is on the table. In practice, it would be a difficult and uncertain undertaking, even if the U.S. could count on the use of Colombian territory, which it cannot.

Choosing sides

The unique situation that has developed in Venezuela, with two rival presidents claiming legitimacy, has forced a large number of countries to choose a side. 

Countries have tended to fall on the side that most closely reflects the ideology of the governing party. Those with leftist or left-leaning governments — including Cuba, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and South Africa — have tended to interpret the constitutional questions in ways that bolster the Maduro government.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, from second left, Bolivia's President Evo Morales, Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega and El Salvador's President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, place their hands on the tomb of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez in 2016. Ceren lost El Salvador's presidential election on Sunday, meaning Maduro lost an ally. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

Those with right-wing or right-leaning governments —  including Brazil, the U.S., and Colombia —  have interpreted them in the opposite way.

On Sunday, an election in El Salvador produced a result that is likely to show that effect again, just as Mexico's vote did. The FMLN government led by former Marxist guerrilla and Maduro ally Salvador Sanchez Ceren was soundly thrashed at the polls, placing third and getting less than 15 per cent of the vote.

Centre-right winner Nayib Bukkele probably won't maintain support for Maduro, and is much more likely to side with the Lima Group.

El Salvador's president-elect Nayib Bukele kisses his wife Gabriela before giving a press conference in San Salvador, El Salvador on Sunday. Bukele is expected to align El Salvador's position on Venezuela with Canada and other members of the Lima Group. (Moises Castillo/Associated Press)

A new cold war divide

But there is also a split along another axis that has little to do with left or right. Authoritarian governments including Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Syria have backed Maduro.

And democracies that might not otherwise have an ideological stake in the squabble, but believe Maduro has illegitimately given himself a second term in office following a widely condemned vote last year, have taken or moved towards the other side. This group includes Canada, Argentina, France, Germany, and Haiti.

An anti-government protester walks past a concrete highway barrier defaced with the Spanish word for dictatorship during demonstrations against Maduro in Caracas on Saturday. (Fernando Llano/Associated Press)

Trudeau defended his position at a town hall a week ago when a questioner suggested he was blindly following U.S. foreign policy and a heckler called out, "Hands off Venezuela." 

"Sorry sir, I disagree," said Trudeau. "The Venezuelan people would probably significantly disagree with you as well because they are suffering and they need true democracy."

Europeans reluctantly embracing opposition

On Monday, nine European nations including Spain, Britain, Germany and France endorsed Guaido after giving Maduro an ultimatum to call new elections. 

But Italy sounded a note of warning. Vice-President Luigi di Maio of the populist 5 Star movement said the situation reminded him of "interventions of western states in other countries" that produced undesired results.

"The greatest interest we have is to avoid a war in Venezuela. We mustn't make the same mistake that was made in Libya and that everyone now recognizes. We have to avoid the same thing happening in Venezuela," di Maio said.

He stressed that Rome was also withholding recognition from the Maduro government. 

Largest countries the most committed

One aspect of the situation is that the most powerful nations involved have taken positions that leave little room for negotiated solutions.

The U.S. has refused to rule out war. Russia and China have both invested significant resources into the Maduro regime. Much of Venezuela's most modern military equipment comes from Russia. China has provided technology. Both have provided loans.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has committed to regime change.

None will want to back down in such a public struggle.