Trudeau has a unique chance to break out of the mold of his predecessor to restore Canada-Venezuela relations.
“There really is no excuse for closing diplomatic ties with a democratic regional government,” says Donald Kingsbury, a political science and Latin-American cultural studies lecturer at the University of Toronto.
Kingsbury, who appeared on TVO’s the Agenda Plus last year and whose research has appeared in the Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, New Political Science, and Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, charted the ways that Canada could warm its relationship with Venezuela—a relationship that could certainly benefit from some “warming.”
Over the last decade, Canadian resource-extraction-based companies are developing “increasingly bad reputations” in the region, Caracas’ and Ottawa’s ambassadors in each other’s countries have both become unaccredited by authorities in both countries, he says, and ideological tensions have run high due to the previous conservative leadership in Canada.
Despite such disagreements, Canada and Venezuela still share a considerable “common cause,” the professor says, in raising the tanking price of oil, calling the economic shocks in both countries “shared turbulence.”
“Brazil, the incipient regional powerhouse, is currently facing an economic downturn, linked in part to the same deflation in costs of primary products that is also negatively impacting the Venezuelan and Canadian economies,” he says.
“The Latin American regional economy is [also] suffering the negative ripple effects of China’s current economic ‘correction’—which could also have an impact on Canada and TPP countries in the near future.”
But warming the relationship to address this issue will mean newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau taking steps away from the policies of his predecessor, he says. From 2006 until the end of his tenure in 2015, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper had expressed predictable disinterest in the leadership of then socialist President Hugo Chavez, often commenting that he represented a challenge to “democratic progress” and “sound economic policies” in the West.
Even outside the immediate relationship between the two countries, Harper’s international heavy-handedness has effected relations. In no area is this more prevalent than in Russia, where Harper developed a “hawkish” stance against President Vladimir Putin, he says. “This [policy] would need to be reversed,” Kingsbury says, due to Venezuela’s close “diplomatic and trade proximity” to the Kremlin.
“Put most bluntly,” he says, “if Trudeau wants a sincere rapprochement with Venezuela he will have to publicly distance himself from the policies of his predecessors.”
Kingsbury also suggests that Canada differentiating itself from U.S. foreign policy will be an absolute necessity “if there is any hope of Canada changing” the relationship.
While the U.S. had smooth relations during the tenure of more conservative leadership in Venezuela—Richard Nixon and Rafael Caldera, for example—ties between the two countries were formally severed in 2008 under accusations that a U.S. ambassador had been rallying behind violent coup attempts in neighboring Bolivia. The U.S. had previously come under fire during the Bush administration for allegedly supporting coups against Chavez’s government, namely in 2002, when Chavez was ousted for 47 hours before being reinstalled. In 2014, economic sanctions on Venezuela were imposed by the U.S. after the government’s violent response to peaceful protests. In 2015, President Obama declared Venezuela a threat to national security.
Rubbing shoulders with the U.S. has also influenced the coalitions of states that have arisen out of hemispheric strategies. Canada and Venezuela countries have since been polarized into their own regional trading and diplomatic blocs: the former with some of the “coup governments” and the United States, and the latter with like-minded states in the region in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Much of the U.S.-led coalitions have resulted in “marginalizing” Venezuela, Kingsbury says.
Trudeau, however has a unique chance to break out of the mold of these blocs—differentiating himself from policies of the U.S. and his predecessor—and build a new relationship based on “mutual recognition and respect,” he says.
Canada was “excluded” from CELAC, says Maxwell Cameron, the director of University of British Columbia’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI). Echoing Kingsbury, the professor says, “[Canada] is seen as too closely allied with the U.S.” Working within the Organization of American States (OAS), Cameron says, Canada should support “multilateralism” and “differentiating itself from the U.S.”
A departmental spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (DFATD), says that Canada will “continue to promote fundamental values” such as “prosperity,” governance in regards to “human rights, democratic institutions, and law,” and security in regards to “anti-organized crime” and “health” with its partners, including Venezuela.
“Canada’s relationship with Latin American countries is based on deep and historic ties, including strong people-to-people links.”
Another step in changing the relationship, Kingsbury says, would be a departure from the “dubious support of the mining and energy projects of Canadian firms, especially in Central America and the Andean region.”
“Canadian companies like Goldcorp and Barrick Gold,” he says, are earning reputations for “human and labor rights abuses of employees and surrounding communities as well as mismanagement and negligence in care for the environmental consequences of their activities.”
“There is even a Supreme Court case in Canada, Choc v. HudBay, in which Mayan farmers from Guatemala are suing a Canadian company for knowingly violating their human rights.”
In response to some of the rising criticism, as well as a scathing United Nations report, Liberal MP John McKay had put forth the private members’ Bill C-300 in 2009, during the Conservatives’ tenure. The bill was struck down by the Tories, but in an interview with VICE’s Justin Ling, McKay said cracking down on the mining companies, he hopes, “would be a government initiative” with Trudeau at the helm.
The Maduro administration will be “wary,” he says, of a Canadian foreign policy pursuant in renewing its ties with the country, potentially viewing Canada as “meddling in its internal affairs” again.
“Time will tell,” Kingsbury says, on the advancements in the relationship. “But a Canada operating throughout the region in a capacity that does not only accord to her own narrow self-interest is a good start for a warming of ties with Venezuela.”
Canada will be sharing the stage with another important Latin American partner, Brazil, at the G20 summit in Turkey next week, which will focus on economic development, youth unemployment, and gender inequality in employment.