Canada funds Venezuelan opposition

By Yves Engler

While many on the left know that Washington has spent tens of millions of dollars funding groups that oppose Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, less well known is Ottawa’s role, especially that of the Canadian government’s “arms-length” human rights organization, Rights & Democracy (R&D).

Montreal-based R&D recently gave its 2010 John Humphrey Award to the Venezuelan non-governmental organization PROVEA (El Programa Venezolano de Educacion-Accion en Derechos Humanos). According to R&D’s website, “The Award consists of a grant of $30,000 and a [December] speaking tour of Canadian cities to help increase awareness of the recipient’s human rights work.”

PROVEA is highly critical of Venezuela’s elected government. In December 2008 Venezuela’s interior and justice minister called PROVEA “liars” who were “paid in [US] dollars.”

During a September visit “to meet with representatives of PROVEA and other [Venezuelan] organizations devoted to human rights and democratic development” R&D President, Gérard Latulippe, blogged about his and PROVEA’s political views. “Marino [Betancourt, Director General of PROVEA] told me about recent practices of harassment and criminalization of the government towards civil society organizations.” In another post Latulippe explained, “We have witnessed in recent years the restriction of the right to freedom of expression. Since 2004-2005, the government of President Chavez has taken important legislative measures which limit this right.”

Upon returning to Canada, Latulippe cited Venezuela as a country with “no democracy”. He told Embassy magazine, “You can see the emergence of a new model of democracy, where in fact it’s trying to make an alternative to democracy by saying people can have a better life even if there’s no democracy. You have the example of Russia. You have an example of Venezuela.”

Latulippe’s claims have no basis in reality. On top of improving living conditions for the country’s poor, the Chavez-led government has massively increased democratic space through community councils, new political parties and worker cooperatives. They have also won a dozen elections/referendums over the past twelve years (and lost only one).

R&D, which is funded almost entirely by the federal government, takes its cues from Ottawa. The Canadian government has repeatedly attacked Chavez. In April 2009 Stephen Harper responded to a question regarding Venezuela by saying, “I don’t take any of these rogue states lightly” and after expressing “concerns over the shrinkage of democratic space” in September, Minister for the Americas Peter Kent said, “This is an election month in Venezuela and the official media has again fired up some of the anti-Semitic slurs against the Jewish community as happened during the Gaza incursion.” Even the head of Canada’s military recently criticized the Chavez government in the Canadian Military Journal. After a tour of South America, Walter Natynczyk wrote “Regretably, some countries, such as Venezuela, are experiencing the politicization of their armed forces.”

The Harper government’s attacks against Venezuela are part of its campaign against the region’s progressive forces. Barely discussed in the media, the Harper government’s shift of aid from Africa to Latin America was largely designed to stunt Latin America’s recent rejection of neo-liberalism and U.S. dependence by supporting the region’s right-wing governments and movements.

To combat independent-minded, socialist-oriented governments and movements Harper’s Conservatives have “played a more active role in supporting U.S. ideologically-driven [democracy promotion] initiatives,” notes researcher Neil A. Burron. They opened a South America focused “democracy promotion” centre at the Canadian Embassy in Peru. Staffed by two diplomats, this secretive venture may clash with the Organization of American States’ non-intervention clause.

According to documents unearthed by Anthony Fenton, in November 2007 Ottawa gave the Justice and Development Consortium (Asociación Civil Consorcio Desarrollo y Justicia) $94,580 “to consolidate and expand the democracy network in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Also funded by the U.S. government’s CIA front group National Endowment for Democracy, the Justice and Development Consortium has worked to unite opposition to leftist Latin American governments. Similarly, in the spring of 2008 the Canadian Embassy in Panama teamed up with the National Endowment for Democracy to organize a meeting for prominent members of the opposition in Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and Ecuador. It was designed to respond to the “new era of populism and authoritarianism in Latin America.” The meeting spawned the Red Latinoamericana y del Caribe para la Democracia, “which brings together mainstream NGOs critical of the leftist governments in the hemisphere.”

The foremost researcher on U.S. funding to the anti-Chavez opposition, Eva Golinger, claims Canadian groups are playing a growing role in Venezuela and according to a May 2010 report from Spanish NGO Fride, “Canada is the third most important provider of democracy assistance” to Venezuela after the U.S. and Spain. Burron describes an interview with a Canadian “official [who] repeatedly expressed concerns about the quality of democracy in Venezuela, noting that the [Federal government’s] Glyn Berry program provided funds to a ‘get out the vote’ campaign in the last round of elections in that country.” You can bet it wasn’t designed to get Chavez supporters to the polls.

Ottawa is not forthcoming with information about the groups they fund in Venezuela, but according to disclosures made in response to a question by former NDP Foreign Affairs critic Alexa McDonough, Canada helped finance Súmate, an NGO at the forefront of anti-Chavez political campaigns. Canada gave Súmate $22,000 in 2005-06. Minister of International Cooperation José Verner explained that “Canada considered Súmate to be an experienced NGO with the capability to promote respect for democracy, particularly a free and fair electoral process in Venezuela.” Yet the name of Súmate leader Maria Corina Machado, who Foreign Affairs invited to Ottawa in January 2005, appeared on a list of people who endorsed the 2002 coup against Chavez, for which she faced charges of treason.

The simple truth is that the current government in Ottawa supports the old elites that long worked with the U.S. empire. It opposes the progressive social transformations taking place in a number of Latin American countries and as a result it supports civil society groups opposed to these developments.

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