U.S. hostility towards Venezuela reached absurd heights in March amidst accusations both Ottawa and Washington are supporting local efforts to overthrow the popularly elected socialist government of Nicolás Maduro. On March 9, U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order “declaring a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela.” This strange step allowed the president to impose sanctions with the ostensible aim of “protecting the U.S. financial system from the illicit financial flows from public corruption in Venezuela.”
But as one State Department official tweeted afterwards, “The goal of these sanctions is to persuade the government of Venezuela to change its ways.” Obama banned seven Venezuelan officials from the U.S. for “human rights violations and corruption” and ordered their assets frozen. He did not provide any evidence to back up the allegations, or explain how these people posed a threat to U.S. security.
“This is ludicrous. Is Obama insane?” wondered Venezuelan-Canadian sociologist Dr. Maria Páez Victor in an interview. “How can Venezuela, with an army of 140,000 soldiers, be a national security threat to the U.S., the biggest imperialist state in the world, with an army of two million, 10,000 nuclear missiles and 700 military bases globally?” She added that the U.S. has been implicated in two coup attempts in Venezuela, and of fomenting violence in the country for the past 15 years. “Obviously it is the U.S. which is a massive security threat to Venezuela.”
With these new sanctions against officials in the Maduro government, Obama’s economic war against Venezuela looks similar to the one being waged against Russia. According to Páez Victor, the connection is oil, more specifically the desire to control it. Venezuela is the fourth-largest exporter of oil to the U.S. As in Russia, declining crude prices—oil makes up 95% of Venezuelan exports—have contributed to the country’s recession, which is made worse by political and economic instability fomented by right-wing groups pushing for regime change. Obama’s executive order is designed to contribute to the unrest.
Unfortunately, for the U.S. and Venezuelan opposition groups, it looks to be having the opposite effect, by shoring up support for Maduro domestically and among his regional counterparts. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which represents 12 Latin American countries, immediately demanded that the U.S. revoke the sanctions as “a threat to sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states.”
“Those people who doubted before that the U.S. was conspiring against [Maduro] now believe it, and all the countries of the region and the world have declared themselves in support of Venezuela except the U.S. and Canada,” said Páez Victor. On March 12, the Venezuelan national assembly granted Maduro temporary powers to rule by decree in these six months leading up to national elections, which he is expected to win.
The alleged February coup
Obama’s designation of Venezuela as a national security threat is even more ridiculous if Maduro’s allegations are true that the U.S., along with Canada and the U.K., backed another attempted coup against his government in February. It would prove, again, the threats run one way—from Washington.
The Maduro government announced on February 12 it had stopped an attempted coup involving Venezuelan Air Force officers in league with the U.S. government and members of the right-wing Venezuelan opposition. Ten people, including civilians and members of the military, were detained. One of those arrested was Antonio Ledezma, mayor of Caracas. The alleged coup plotters are said to have planned to bomb the presidential palace, the national assembly and the headquarters of Telesur (Television of the South).
As reported by Telesur, Diosdado Cabello, president of Venezuela’s national assembly, stated in mid-February that, “a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and a member of the U.K. diplomatic corps in Venezuela, had been involved in [coup] plans, including seeking information on airport capacity in case of emergencies.” Cabello named Nancy Birbeck as the RCMP officer, who was allegedly accompanied by someone from the Canadian Embassy. The embassy denied the allegations in a tweet—the only official response to the crisis situation.
Páez Victor was surprised to learn that, as she put it, “in the midst of the tension of an attempted coup, an RCMP officer of the Canadian embassy took it upon herself to ‘inspect’ an airport for its readiness in an emergency.” She said she is not surprised, however, that the Venezuelan government interpreted this as proof that Canada was either involved with, or had prior knowledge of, the alleged coup.
Canada’s history of regime change
Canadian support for coups in Latin America and the Caribbean, while spanning Liberal and Conservative governments, has been on the rise under Prime Minister Harper, as has Canadian hostility to the Chavez and Maduro administrations—Harper called Venezuela a “rogue state” in 2009—and the alignment of Canadian and U.S. foreign policy generally. Canada supported the coups in Honduras (2009) and Paraguay (2012), and it is well documented how Ottawa played a central role, with Washington, Paris and London, in planning of the 2004 coup against the Aristide government in Haiti.
In February 2010, the Chavez government accused Canada of supporting coup plotters and destabilizers in Venezuela. Prominent among them was Venezuelan opposition politician María Corina Machado, who refers to Maduro as a dictator, and who was one of the leaders in last year’s violent protests against the Venezuelan government, in which 43 people were killed and 800 injured. The U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have channelled millions of dollars to Machado's (now defunct) non-governmental organization, Súmate, as well as to her electoral campaigns. She outright supported the 2002 coup and is implicated in the alleged February reprisal.
The Canadian government also funded Súmate as far back as 2005, the year Machado was first invited to Ottawa to brief the Department of Foreign Affairs on the human rights situation in Venezuela. As reported last June in the CCPA Monitor, Machado was granted a private meeting in Ottawa last year with John Baird, then Canada's minister of foreign affairs, suggesting a continued relationship with “this terrorist,” in the words of Páez Victor.
“This is a woman that if she were Canadian would now be in prison here,” she added during our conversation. José Vicente Rangel, Venezuela’s former foreign minister, announced in July 2014 that the Canadian embassy had helped about 30 agents of an unnamed “important intelligence organization” enter Venezuela, a charge Ottawa denied.
Yves Engler, author of the The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (2009) and The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy (2012), told me, “The Canadian government has definitely made it clear that it is antagonistic to the government in Venezuela and the revolutionary process more generally. It has also spent money building up oppositional groups and Ben Rowswell, who was appointed ambassador in 2014, was viewed as someone who was likely to be active in campaigns against the elected government.”
Rowswell is a specialist in social media and political transition. As Gerard Di Trolio explained in his March 2014 article for the Venezuela Analysis website, “While overseeing the ‘democratic transitions’ of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Egypt, the fledgling attaché specialized in the harnessing of social media for diplomatic missions, in order to interact directly with non-state actors, in effect bypassing the target nation’s government.”
Rowswell believes that social media can create transparency. His Twitter presence feels humourously at odds with the Canadian government that employs him. While leaked documents suggest the RCMP and CSIS are monitoring protest movements in Canada for their potential threat to the government’s economic priorities, Rowswell tweets continuously about how social movements can successfully promote change. They include links to articles assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Idle No More’s online presence.
But transparency has limits when regime change is your ultimate objective. As Di Trolio pointed out, Venezuela's opposition has posted photos from Turkey, Ukraine, Brazil and Syria to social media networks, pretending the harsh treatment of protestors by official security forces that they showed were actually from Venezuela.
Geopolitical interests in Venezuela
Engler emphasized that Ottawa is aligning its policy towards Venezuela with that of Washington’s but not only for U.S. interests. Parts of the Canadian business class strongly oppose the progressive social changes that have taken place in Venezuela, and Latin America more broadly, over the past 15 years.
Peter Munk, the founder of Toronto-based Barrick Gold (the biggest gold mining company in the world with operations in Peru, Chile and Argentina), once compared Chavez to Hitler in a letter to the Financial Times, and frequently decries growing “resource nationalism” in presentations to company shareholders and board members.
The Prime Minister does not go as far as Munk or Machado in declaring Venezuela a dictatorship, though his comments in 2013, on the death of Chavez (“I hope the people of Venezuela can now build for themselves a better, brighter future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights”), elicited strong condemnation from the Venezuelan government.
But Canada’s objectives in the region are intimately connected with those of Munk and his colleagues in Canada’s oil, gas and mining industries. In fact, as Páez Victor suggested, Harper’s “political career seems to centre on advancing the interests of Canadian mining and petroleum companies.”
Venezuela’s move to the left, and away from the U.S., has involved the nationalization and/or tighter regulation of key extractive operations, some of them owned by Canadian firms. Maduro is also courting China, whose investors have extended US$50 billion since 2007 in exchange for guaranteed oil shipments. A country taking control of its resources is anathema to neoliberal regimes in Ottawa and Washington, not to mention the powerful international extractives lobby.
Outside of direct assistance to opposition groups, the Canadian government’s main tool for undermining resource nationalism in Latin America are investment treaties and free trade agreements, which allow mining companies to penalize governments that change their mind about energy or mining projects, even for social or environmental reasons. (See Judith Marshall’s article in this issue.)
Canadian-listed gold miners Crystallex, Vanessa Ventures, Gold Reserve and Rusuro Mining sued Venezuela, in separate cases under a 1998 Foreign Investment Protection Agreement (FIPA) with Canada, when their projects were affected by Chavez’s nationalization of all gold mines in 2011. Late last year, an arbitration panel at the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes awarded Gold Reserve more than US$700 million (plus legal fees) in compensation.
Venezuela has withdrawn from the ICSID convention and is cancelling its investment treaties, but, as is normal with these treaties, the FIPA remains in force for fifteen years after the date of cancellation. The pressure will be on future Venezuelan governments to reverse this policy direction.
Gold Reserve’s victory will no doubt inspire Canadian and U.S. mining companies to continue to use investor–state arbitration, or the threat of it, to get their way in the region. It is also a feather in the Harper government’s cap, as it seeks to position Canada as an energy and mining superpower. The message to miners is that Canadian treaties are strong enough to protect investment from left-of-centre regimes, and that Canada’s embassies will be working hard, where necessary, to make those regimes more amenable to foreign investment.
“The joining of Canadian policy with that of the U.S. and Ottawa’s aggressive stance towards the Chavez and Maduro governments is a real shame, because Canada used to be well regarded internationally and in Latin America. No more,” said Páez Victor. “Canada is now seen as an agent of U.S. imperialism in Latin America which has isolated it in the region and significantly curtailed its influence.”
Despite the Canadian government’s hostility to Maduro, the new Venezuelan ambassador to Canada, Wilmer Barrientos Fernandez, told me, “We would love to work with the Canadian people towards a close relationship on the basis of respect, of true democracy, and of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.”
Asad Ismi covers international affairs for the Monitor.