Canada, Latin American allies at odds over Venezuela intervention pledge

Canada broke ranks this week with the majority of a group of American nations it helped to create to deal with the spiraling crisis in Venezuela.

And although Canada's refusal to sign a joint statement of the Lima Group — a statement that commits members to opposing military intervention in Venezuela — does not portend a sudden shift in Canadian policy, it is part of the first significant split among the group's 14 members over how far they might go to restore democratic government to the impoverished nation.

The dispute began Friday when Luis Almagro, the Uruguayan secretary-general of the Organization of American States, visited the city of Cucuta on Colombia's border with Venezuela.

The city has become one of the main crossing points for hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing hunger and chaos at home.

In a news conference on the Simon Bolivar international bridge, with Colombia's new foreign minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo García at his side, Almagro said that "with regards to military intervention to overthrow the regime of Nicolas Maduro, I believe we mustn't rule out any option."

Almagro accused Venezuela's ruling United Socialist Party of using "misery, hunger and lack of medicine as repressive instruments to impose its political will on the people," and said the region had never seen "a government so immoral as to refuse to accept humanitarian aid when it's in the middle of a humanitarian crisis."

No to armed intervention

Almagro's statements were too belligerent for many of the countries of the Lima Group, which counts as members Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Saint Lucia.

(The United States, Uruguay, Barbados, Grenada and Jamaica are observer nations, and the group is also supported by the OAS and the European Union.)

Peru called for all members to back a motion repudiating "any type of action or declaration that implies military intervention or … threats or the use of violence."

But after intense negotiations, only 11 of the 14 member states could agree to put their names on that statement.

The holdouts were Canada and Venezuela's neighbours to its west and east, Colombia and Guyana.

Although Global Affairs Canada has published on its website previous joint statements from the Lima Group that it has supported, Canada did not publicize its decision to refuse to endorse the statement opposing intervention.

The refusal to sign seemed to signal a hardening of Canada's position on Venezuela, but government sources tell CBC News that Canada's refusal was motivated by procedural concerns over the way the statement came together, and the Trudeau government is not endorsing any call for military intervention against the government in Caracas.

Rather, Canadian officials felt the motion, originally introduced by Peru, was rushed and did not go through proper channels.

Still, the dispute over Almagro's controversial call to arms marks the first deep public split in the Lima Group, which Canada was instrumental in setting up and which continues to be the Trudeau government's main vehicle for diplomacy on Venezuela.

War talk gets louder

While Canadian officials sought to qualify their position on intervention, Colombia's new president Ivan Duque appears to have moved closer to the idea of using force against the Venezuelan government — an idea he rejected earlier this summer.

On Monday, Colombia accused Venezuelan forces of making an armed incursion into Colombia and abducting three Colombian citizens from an Amazonian island called Maipures 3 in the Orinoco river. The Maduro government responded by saying the island, which it calls Mantequero, belongs to Venezuela (although it has been under Colombian control since 1931).

It was the latest incursion alleged by Colombia in a rapidly escalating war of words, raising the prospect that border incidents could flare into something more serious.

The Trump administration has openly entertained the possibility of armed action since August 2017, when President Donald Trump said "Venezuela is not very far away, and the people are suffering, and they're dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary."

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that White House officials had met with mutinous Venezuelan officers who were plotting Maduro's overthrow. Many of those officers have since been arrested, the Times reported.

Canada 'uncivilized, obsessive, hostile'

The Trudeau government has been far more circumspect. Government sources say Canada was keen to create the Lima Group without Washington's participation because it shows pan-American unity on the restoration of democracy in Venezuela, yet can't be easily dismissed by Caracas as a puppet of the United States.

Just today, Canadian officials told CBC Ottawa might well sign a statement of non-intervention if it were presented differently than the one issued this weekend.

But Venezuela increasingly has come to see Canada as an enemy regardless.

In December, it declared Canadian diplomat Craig Kowalik persona non grata for "constant interference in Venezuela's internal affairs."

At the same time, Venezuela's foreign ministry denounced "a new threat against its peace and soveriegnty by the two principal military powers in the hemisphere, the USA and Canada." The Venezuelan communiqué cited a meeting in Ottawa last December 19 where U.S. and Canadian officials ostensibly discussed intervention plans.

Throughout the summer of 2018, after Canada banned the Venezuelan embassy from collecting ballots on Canadian soil for what Ottawa considered a sham election, Venezuela's foreign minister Jorge Arreaza launched a series of statements accusing the Trudeau government of "uncivilized, hostile, obsessive behaviour" toward his country.

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"It's evident that the obsessive conduct of the government of Canada against Venezuela," said one statement, "derives from the humiliating subordination of its foreign policy to the racist and supremacist administration of Donald Trump. The facts show that this servile policy of Canadian authorities is the product of the desperation of this government to avoid losing benefits and preferences in its trade agreements with the U.S."

Other Venezuelan statements accused "pro-imperialist Canada" of "a laughable superiority complex" toward the South American nation.

Breathing space for Maduro

The splits among American nations over Venezuela were already clearly on view at the Summit of the Americas this past April in Lima. Maduro stayed away after the Peruvian government made it clear he wasn't welcome, but Venezuela was very much the centre of attention, with nearly every other leader referring to the crisis in the country.

On one side, the countries of the Lima Group and the U.S. denounced the Venezuelan regime and warned they would not respect the results of its upcoming elections. Meanwhile, a smaller group of countries — Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba and some Caribbean island nations — denounced Maduro's exclusion.

But the latest split between members of the Lima Group suggests that even those countries that agree Maduro has to go are split on how to make that happen.

Those signs of disunity will be welcome news to a regime that appears to be drowning in its economic crisis. But any relief the Maduro government might feel will be tempered by the fact that neighbouring Colombia, with its powerful military, refused to sign the statement against intervention.