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In Venezuela, Street Protests Harper Can Get Behind

Why should Ottawa care about violent demonstrations in Caracas? Oil, of course.

By Dawn Paley 24 Mar 2014 |

Dawn Paley is a journalist from Vancouver and a Tyee National Columnist. Find her on Twitter @dawn_.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders.

As the political situation continues to simmer in Venezuela, Canada has been making quiet gestures of support towards the country's opposition movement.

Since February, the Venezuelan right has taken to the streets, attempting to undermine the democratically elected socialist government.

The street demonstrations came while an initiative of economic sabotage against the government was underway, including the hoarding and smuggling of basic foodstuffs and a smear campaign in local media.

Voices of reason warn that the media is failing to report the truth about the recent eruption of protests in Venezuela. But Ottawa has actively pointed a finger at the government of Nicolás Maduro, expressing alarm at state violence and defending the right to legitimate protest.

Such declarations are eyebrow-raising, considering how Canada treats left-wing opposition movements that employ similar (though far tamer) street tactics than the Venezuelan right. Think back to the mass arrests at the Toronto G-20, or ongoing sweeps of demonstrators under the P-6 law in Montréal.

The swell of support for protests in Ottawa would not be taking place if the Harper government wasn't interested in regime change in Venezuela.

On side with the violent minority

In February, a motion was passed unanimously in the House of Commons calling on Maduro's government to release all detained protesters and proactively de-escalate the conflict. "Canada continues to be concerned by the reports of excessive force and human rights abuses by security forces," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said last week.

But a careful review of photos and footage from the protests is enough to see that the opposition members Canada supports are using violent tactics in the streets. Twenty-nine people have been killed since the opposition began calling supporters to the streets in mid-February, and an estimated 300 people have been injured.

According to President Maduro, 28 of those killed were murdered by guarimberos, a Venezuelan word for opposition gangsters. Today, the guarimberos continue to set up roadblocks and cause disturbances in Caracas and a handful of other regions in the country.

Opposition leaders contest the accusation that they are responsible for the deaths, but they have refused to support a Truth Commission and ignored calls by the government to participate in a national dialogue.

Ottawa has quietly taken a proactive role in propping up an opposition movement that the Economist acknowledges is limited to a middle-class minority and doesn't include the country's poor.

The benefits of sharing oil money, as opposed to handing it off to foreign corporations, goes a long way towards explaining popular support for the government. The opposition, however, wants a return to free market capitalism, and this desire extends to the management of the oil sector.

Oil money in the wrong hands

Venezuala's oil reserves topped 211 billion barrels in 2010, putting the country between Saudi Arabia and Iraq as the world's second largest source of oil. Social programs and generous subsidies started under former president Hugo Chávez have re-distributed oil wealth and reduced inequality in the South American nation.

Free education, university, and health care, state subsidies on food and housing, and an unemployment rate of 7.8 per cent make Venezuela, even with its high crime rate, a relatively good place to live. On a recent trip to the Colombia-Venezuela border, I couldn't help but notice that subsidized food and gas smuggled from Venezuela are keeping swaths of Colombia fed and moving.

Nothing is perfect, of course. Long line-ups and inefficiencies are also part of life in Venezuela today. But evidently the majority supports a continuation of Bolivarian socialism in Venezuela, which has been the voters' choice in 18 of the last 19 elections over the past 15 years.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, is bent on negating the gains in Venezuela. To him, Venezuela represents the worst of what oil money can do in the hands of socialists.

That may be why Canada and the U.S. were the only two countries in the Organization of American States that supported a proposal by Panamá calling for measures to address the unrest in Venezuela.

582px version of Venezuelan protestors, 2014
Protests in front of police at Altamira Square, Caracas. Photo by Daga95 via Wikimedia Commons

The OAS motion proposed by Panamá amounted to foreign intervention in Venezuela, and obviously not at the request of Caracas. The proposal led to Maduro cutting Venezuela's diplomatic ties with Panamá.

Since the failed bid to get the OAS meddling in Venezuela, Canada has been getting busy on its own accord.

No fly zone

Last week, Air Canada announced it would cut flights from Toronto to Venezuela's capital, Caracas, citing "ongoing civil unrest" as the reason. Like other airlines, Air Canada claims is owed money by the Maduro government. According to Air Canada, economic and political instability has also increased the challenges of operating in Venezuela. "This has resulted in onerous currency restrictions imposed on all airlines, preventing them from recovering their funds from Venezuela," according to a statement Air Canada emailed to The Tyee.

In cancelling flights and blaming unrest, Air Canada has imposed a symbolic embargo on Venezuela, and legitimated the opposition protests.

Venezuelan Minister of Water and Air Transportation Hebert García Plaza said Air Canada's decision was unilateral and a violation of the Air Transport Agreement between Canada and Venezuela (which the Canadian embassy denies). "It is not suspension of flights; it is technically termination of the agreement for flights to Venezuela, and we will take steps with the Venezuelan Foreign Office to wind up this relationship with Air Canada until the president (Nicolás Maduro) resolves so," said García Plaza. If Maduro keeps his word, Canadians who want to visit the country (or vice versa) will have to re-route through the U.S.

Which raises an interesting question. Days before Air Canada cut service to Venezuela, Ben Rowswell arrived in Caracas as Canada's new ambassador.

A mover and shaker in Canada's counterinsurgency efforts in the Middle East, Rowswell represented Canada in Iraq and served as Canada's deputy head of mission in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Between 2009 and 2010, he directed the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team.

His specialty is state-building and stabilization, and he's known as someone who dabbles in digital diplomacy.

I tweeted Rowswell for comment, asking whether he arrived in Venezuela on Air Canada's last flight, or flew through the U.S. on his way down. So far, he's declined to tweet back.  [Tyee]

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