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The Canadian Lobby’s Deference towards Latin America: Venezuela 1, Honduras 0

By: Victoria L. Henderson - @vlhenderson - Apr 8, 2014, 9:36 am

EspañolThe Canadian government should denounce extreme violence against human rights activists and political opponents, widespread impunity and corruption, judicial politicization, and institutional decay in Latin America.

So says the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC), a coalition of approximately 90 nonprofit organizations, including the Canadian branch of Amnesty International, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the Canadian Nurses Association, World University Service of Canada, prominent Canadian labor unions, and religious and secular groups dedicated to social justice.

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Source: CCIC Facebook.

At least that is what the CCIC said in 2013, when the Council slammed the Canadian government for treating Honduras like a “friendly partner,” instead of openly “denouncing the human rights situation and the Honduran government’s blatant disregard for the rule of law.”

In an op-ed published by Embassy magazine in May of 2013, CCIC officials decried the deterioration of democracy in Honduras. The authors aimed to delegitimize the Honduran government, thereby calling into question both the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement and two key Honduran policy initiatives: a new mining law and a constitutional amendment paving the way for the development of startup cities and LEAP zones.

The reasons given by the CCIC for rejecting free-market reforms in Honduras are numerous, but they all rest on the claim that the disputed 2009 removal from office of then-President of Honduras Manuel Zelaya was followed by elections that were “deeply flawed” and carried out in an environment of general insecurity and political persecution.

In making its case against the Honduran government, the CCIC claims that democratic legitimacy is determined as much by the integrity of the electoral process and the conditions under which power is exercised as it is by the results of any given electoral contest — which raises the question of why the Council is now urging the Canadian government to stand down on criticism of the Bolivarian government in Venezuela.

Amidst growing international condemnation of state repression by Venezuela’s socialist regime, Embassy recently published an open letter by the CCIC Americas Policy Group to Canada’s Foreign Minister, John Baird. The letter demands that Canada demonstrate a “balanced and respectful approach” to the Venezuelan crisis. Specifically, the CCIC calls on the Canadian government to recognize President Nicolás Maduro’s electoral victory last year, saying “the legitimacy of the current [Venezuelan] government is clear.”

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Venezuela’s national guard out in force to quell opposition protests (February, Caracas). Source: PanAm Post.

When read against the CCIC’s call for Canada to denounce the Honduran government as “illegitimate” based on “deeply flawed” (2013) and “questionable” (2014) elections, the only thing clear about the Council’s position on Venezuela seems to be its ideological bias.

As Terry Glavin recently mused in the Ottawa Citizen: “Just why Bolivarianism still holds such sway over so many Canadians who fancy themselves to be ‘progressive’ is a mystery…”

All of the key issues raised by the CCIC to delegitimize the Honduran government (see here and here) are also in play in Venezuela. These include: allegations of constitutional violations in both the origin and exercise of the presidential mandate; rapid militarization and the recruitment of state-sponsored paramilitary groups; widespread persecution of journalists and political opponents; escalation of homicide coupled with increasing impunity for violent crimes; politicization of the judiciary; and general institutional decay.

Despite the similarity of these background conditions — in fact, the number of dead and injured during eight weeks of political unrest in Venezuela is higher than during the year-long run-up to the last presidential election in Honduras — the CCIC is primarily concerned that a carefully worded Canadian House of Commons resolution on Venezuela “appears to hold the Venezuelan government solely responsible” for political violence.

The CCIC, which has avoided any demand for nuanced accountability for political violence in Honduras, is not wrong to seek accuracy with respect to the Venezuelan crisis. However, the Council’s insistence on the “fact” that in Venezuela “both government supporters and state security forces, as well as the opposition, have equally suffered fatalities, and persons wounded and detained” is overreach at best.

On the question of fatalities in Venezuela, there remains significant confusion over the classification of victims and aggressors; and there is simply no evidence to support the CCIC claim that pro-government factions have suffered “equally” in terms of injuries and detentions. Moreover, the CCIC’s insistence that the call by Venezuela’s opposition leaders for peaceful street protests somehow makes them personally responsible for “a large part of the violence” is but a faithful echo of regime rhetoric.

For its part, the Venezuelan government has repeatedly sidelined issues of domestic insecurity, inflation, corruption, and food, medical, and energy shortages as catalysts for the protests. The regime instead prefers to frame the unrest as evidence of a US-sponsored coup d’état. Giving uptake to this line, the CCIC urges the Canadian government to distance itself from the US position (including support for pro-democracy movements) and to “condemn foreign intervention in Venezuela’s internal affairs.”

Notably the CCIC’s condemnation of foreign intervention in Venezuela excludes any mention of Cuba’s oversize role in Venezuela’s public administration, security, intelligence, and military apparatus — a point that is consistently and strategically ignored by international defenders of the Venezuelan regime, but one that remains central to the current protests.

The CCIC insists Canada should “stand with the rest of the Americas in supporting the proposal by President Maduro for face-to-face dialogue aimed at seeking common solutions to the problems Venezuela faces.”

The call for dialogue is presented by the CCIC as a novel position; however, this obscures the fact that two of the largest opposition camps in Venezuela (see here and here) have already agreed on the need for dialogue. The sticking point is whether the government will commit to meeting the opposition’s pre-conditions for talks, which include the disarming of paramilitary groups and the release of political prisoners and detainees.

Maduro has made it clear that he will not accept the pre-conditions, leading one analyst to observe that any third-party attempt to mediate in Venezuela will have “little discretion beyond what the Maduro administration allows.”

The CCIC’s open letter on Venezuela refers to the “combined desire of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean” to respect the legitimacy of the Maduro administration. But there is no hemispheric consensus on the need to stand down on criticism of the Venezuelan regime’s human rights abuses.

Legislators in Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama have expressed concern for the safety of protesters. And even Brazil, which has come under attack for selling teargas to Venezuela to disperse street demonstrations, appears to be scaling back its support for the Bolivarian platform. Venezuela’s Catholic Church has denounced the regime’s “totalitarian” tendencies; the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has expressed “deep concern” over the criminalization of dissent; and the European Union, upholding the opposition’s pre-conditions for dialogue, has explicitly called on the Maduro administration to “disarm and dissolve” pro-government civilian militias.

One wonders whether the member organizations of the CCIC have been duly apprised of the Council’s bid to buttress the legitimacy of the Venezuelan regime.

Is the Canadian branch of Amnesty International (AI), a CCIC member, simply unaware of AI’s recent report that demands an investigation into allegations that Venezuelan security forces “have resorted to the excessive use of force, including the use of live fire, and even torture” when dealing with protesters?

What about other CCIC member groups?

Why would Canadian Journalists for Free Expression ignore claims of censorship and aggression made by the National Union of Press Workers of Venezuela? Is the Canadian Nurses Association aware that medical professionals in Venezuela have declared a state of emergency due to shortages of basic supplies, or that the government has prohibited community medical practitioners from joining the protests? Does the World University Service of Canada think it unworthy of comment that opposition students in Venezuela have been stripped naked and beaten on campus by pro-government forces?

To demand that the Venezuelan regime address these and other abuses is not akin to coup plotting. On the contrary, it is consistent with a legitimate commitment to substantive democracy in the hemisphere. It is also consistent with the demands previously placed by the CCIC on Honduras.

Resolution of the crisis in Venezuela must begin with an end to “progressive” hypocrisy.

Victoria L. Henderson Victoria L. Henderson

A former print journalist and magazine editor, Henderson is a PhD Candidate (ABD) at Queen’s University and a director at the Institute for Social and Economic Analysis in Ontario, Canada. She holds degrees in Spanish & Latin American Studies and Geography. Follow @vlhenderson, and read more of her featured PanAm Post column, "The Northern Passage."