Category Archives: Latin America

Liberals use ‘human rights’ to push coup in Venezuela

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Chrystia Freeland, Michelle Bachelet and Ben Roswell

The modern way to overthrow a government the capitalist world doesn’t like is by claiming to do it in the name of supporting ‘human rights’. This requires that the target be portrayed as a rights violator.

As part of their effort to overthrow Nicolas Maduro’s government, Ottawa has funded and promoted a slew of groups and individuals critical of human rights in Venezuela. And a recent report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) gave a boost to Canada’s faltering coup bid in that South American country. Overseen by former social democratic Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, the report paints Venezuelan security forces as extremely violent and the government as politically repressive.

While the Hugo Chavez/Maduro government’s failure to address insecurity/police violence in the country is condemnable, some context is required. Neighbours Colombia and Brazil also have significant problems with police and other forms of violence. As do countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, Jamaica, Honduras, etc.

Instead of offering a roadmap for remedying the scourge of violence and divisions in the country, the one-sided OHCHR report offers a public relations triumph to those pursuing regime change, which would likely plunge the country into greater violence. As former OHCHR Independent Expert Alfred de Zayas pointed out, Bachelet “should have clearly condemned the violence by extreme right opposition leaders and the calls for foreign intervention in Venezuela.” The human rights law expert, who produced a report on Venezuela last year, added that the “report should also have focussed on the criminality of the repeated attempts at a coup d’etat [because] there is nothing more undemocratic than a coup.”

On Saturday thousands marched in Caracas and other Venezuelan cities to reject the OHCHR report. For its part, the Venezuelan government responded with a 70-point rebuttal and Maduro wrote an open letter challenging the OHCHR report. According to Caracas, more than 80% of the 558 individuals interviewed by the OHCHR were not in Venezuela and Maduro asked, “can a political project legitimized 23 times at the ballot box in the last twenty years be called a dictatorship?” The Venezuelan government also criticized the OHCHR for failing to call for the lifting of unilateral sanctions, which the Center for Economic and Policy Research recently found responsible for 40,000 deaths from August 2017 to the end of 2018. The sanctions have become more extreme since. A Financial Times story last week titled “Venezuela sanctions fuel famine fears” and a New York Times op-ed titled “Misguided sanctions hurt Venezuelans” highlight their growing impact.

Canada has adopted four rounds of unilateral sanctions against Venezuela. It also contributed to the one-sided OHCHR report. In mid-June Bachelet met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and foreign minister Chrystia Freeland. They reportedly discussed Venezuela. Bachelet also participated in a panel with Freeland on “the global fight for human rights.” It was moderated by former Canadian Ambassador in Venezuela Ben Roswell, who has been Canada’s most vocal advocate for overthrowing Maduro’s government.

Even more dubious, Bachelet met self-declared Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó’s “ambassador” in Canada Orlando Viera Blanco. Accompanied by Chile’s ambassador, Alejandro Marisio, Viera-Blanco gave Bachelet a dossier of purported human rights abuses in Venezuela. In a sign of how seriously he took the report and Bachelet’s then upcoming visit to Venezuela, Viera-Blanco posted two dozen tweets related to meeting Bachelet.

The statement released by Bachelet’s office at the end of her two-day visit to Montreal and Ottawa reflects what could be described as an ‘imperialistic human rights agenda’. In a press release titled “Canada ‘a welcome ally’ in advancing human rights around the world”, Bachelet declared, “Canada is a leader in promoting the international human rights agenda and the benefits of the rules-based international order.” That’s a Trudeau government talking point that doesn’t withstand minimal scrutiny. During their mandate the Liberals have cozied up with repressive Middle East monarchies, backed brutal mining companies, justified Israeli violence against Palestinians, enabled a corrupt, illegitimate and murderous Haitian president to remain in power, allied with an unconstitutional Honduran government, deployed troops on various NATO missions, failed to end Canada’s ‘low level war’ on Iran, refused to support nuclear weapons controls, increased military spending, etc.

Why would Bachelet and the OHCHR lend themselves to the US-led campaign against Venezuela’s government? The anti-Maduro Lima Group and Chilean president Sebastián Piñera have pressured Bachelet to criticize the Maduro government. In fact, Bachelet’s government joined the Lima Group of countries opposed to the Maduro government.

The OHCHR is dependent on countries hostile to Maduro for its funding. About 45% of its budget comes from general UN funds and most of the rest from discretionary state contributions. Norway, Britain, European Commission, Sweden, Denmark and the US are its top donors. Canada was the OHCHR’s ninth biggest national funder in 2018 and the tenth biggest in the first six months of this year.

What prompted me to dissect the OHCHR report was an email sent to my mother from a politically sympathetic family member who asked whether it was a mistake to dog Trudeau on Venezuela. (At a public event last month I repeatedly yelled “Hands off Venezuela”, “end illegal Canadian sanctions”, “non a l’intervention Canadien au Venezuela” a few feet from the Prime Minister and a week ago I yelled “hands off Venezuela” and “end the Illegal Canadian sanctions” as Trudeau left a press conference. In a similar vein, some 50 individuals confronted Freeland about Venezuela at a Canada Day barbecue and last week activists in London, Ontario, challenged Trudeau on Venezuela at a music festival.) My relative wrote that he supported countries’ right to self-determination but felt that Bachelet’s report was a credible indictment of the Maduro government.

But if the attempts to overthrow the Venezuelan government were really about human rights violations how do you explain the lack of similar Canadian (or other Western nations) action against dozens of countries with terrible human rights records but that do not challenge capitalism?

Even those inclined to believe some of the more extreme criticisms leveled against the Venezuelan government should support the protesters, not our government. The likely result of Canada succeeding in its current path is a civil war in Venezuela. Moreover, it would set a bad precedent if Canada were to succeed in its brazen coup mongering. (In a further sign of the brashness of their campaign, the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers gave Patricia Atkinson, Head of the Venezuela Task Force at Global Affairs Canada, its Foreign Service Officers award last month. The write up explained, “Patricia, and the superb team she assembled and led, supported the Minister’s engagement and played key roles in the substance and organization of 11 meetings of the 13 country Lima group which coordinates action on Venezuela. She assisted in developing three rounds of sanctions against the regime.”)

Whatever one thinks of Maduro, Canada’s interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs and unilateral sanctions contravene the “rules-based international order” Trudeau, Freeland and Bachelet claim Ottawa upholds. But, Parliament and the media largely play along so it’s only through grassroots activism that we can hope to pry open the discussion and rein in our government.

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Ugly Canadian supports status quo in original banana republic

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Stephen Harper meets with Porfirio Lobo.

In 1901, US author O. Henry coined the term “banana republic” to describe Honduras, which was dominated by the US-based United Fruit Company. According to Wikipedia: “Typically a banana republic has a society of extremely stratified social classes, usually a large impoverished working class and a ruling-class plutocracy, composed of the business, political and military elites of that society.”

Not much has changed in the past 120 years, although the Ugly American has been joined at the ruling class table by the Ugly Canadian.

Ten years-ago today Ottawa tacitly supported the Honduran military’s removal of elected president Manuel Zelaya. During the past decade Canada has strongly allied itself to those backing the coup who continue to rule the Central American country.

It was not until basically every country in the hemisphere denounced the June 28, 2009, coup that Ottawa finally did so but Canada did not explicitly call for Zelaya’s return to power. On a number of occasions Minister of State for the Americas Peter Kent said it was important to take into account the context in which the military overthrew Zelaya, telling the New York Times: “There is a context in which these events [the coup] happened.”

In the lead-up to his ouster Ottawa displayed a clear ambivalence towards Zelaya. Early in June Kent criticized Zelaya, saying: “We have concerns with the government of Honduras.” The Conservatives opposed Zelaya’s plan for a binding public poll on whether to hold consultations to reopen the constitution, which had been written by a military government.

A week after the coup, during which Zelaya was flown to Costa Rica, the elected president tried to return to Honduras along with three Latin American heads of state. But the military blocked his plane from landing and kept over 100,000 supporters at bay. In doing so the military killed two protesters and wounded at least 30. On CTV Kent blamed Zelaya for the violence. Just before the elected president tried to fly into Tegucigalpa, Kent told the OAS the “time is not right” for a return, prompting Zelaya to respond dryly: “I could delay until January 27 [2010]” (when his term ended). Two weeks after trying to return by air Zelaya attempted to cross into Honduras by land from Nicaragua, which Kent once again criticized.

Despite the coup, Ottawa refused to exclude Honduras from its Military Training Assistance Program. Though only five Honduran troops were being trained in Canada, failing to suspend relations with a military responsible for overthrowing an elected government was highly symbolic. More significantly, Canada was the only major donor to Honduras — the largest recipient of Canadian assistance in Central America — that failed to sever any aid to the military government. The World Bank, European Union and even the US suspended some of their planned assistance to Honduras.

In response to the conflicting signals from North American leaders, the ousted Honduran foreign minister told TeleSur that Ottawa and Washington were providing “oxygen” to the military government. Patricia Rodas called on Canada and the US to suspend aid to the de facto regime. During an official visit to Mexico with Zelaya, Rodas asked Mexican president Felipe Calderon, who was about to meet Stephen Harper and Barak Obama, to lobby Ottawa and Washington on their behalf.

Five months after Zelaya was ousted the coup government held previously scheduled elections. During the campaign period the de facto government imposed martial law and censored media outlets. Dozens of candidates withdrew from local and national races and opposition presidential candidate Carlos H. Reyes was hospitalized following a severe beating from security forces.

The November 2009 election was boycotted by the UN and OAS and most Hondurans abstained from the poll. Despite mandatory voting regulations, only 45 percent of those eligible cast a ballot (it may have been much lower as this was the government’s accounting). Still, Ottawa endorsed this electoral farce. “Canada congratulates the Honduran people for the relatively peaceful and orderly manner in which the country’s elections were conducted,” noted an official statement. While most countries in the region continued to shun post-coup Honduras, Ottawa immediately recognized Porfirio Lobo after he was inaugurated as Honduran president on January 27, 2010. Not long after, Canada negotiated a free trade agreement with Honduras.

Particular corporate interests and regional integration efforts motivated Ottawa’s hostility towards Zelaya. A number of major Canadian corporations, notably Gildan and Goldcorp, were unhappy Zelaya raised the minimum wage and restricted mining operations. Rights Action uncovered credible information that a subsidiary of Vancouver based Goldcorp provided money to those who rallied in support of the coup. Additionally, a year before the coup Honduras joined the Hugo Chavez led Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas (ALBA), which was a response to North American capitalist domination of the region.

Lobo’s successor as president came from his right-wing National Party. Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH) won an election marred by substantial human rights violations targeting the Libre party, which put forward Zelaya’s wife Xiomara Castro for president. In 2017 JOH defied the Honduran constitution to run for a second term. At Hernandez’ request the four Supreme Court members appointed by his National Party overruled an article in the constitution explicitly prohibiting re-election. (The removal of Zelaya was justified on the grounds that he was seeking to run for a second term despite simply putting forward a plan to hold a non-binding public poll on whether to hold consultations to reopen the constitution.) JOH then ‘won’ a highly questionable poll. With 60 per cent of votes counted opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla lead by five-points. The electoral council then went silent for 36 hours and when reporting resumed JOH had a small lead. The Canadian government endorsed this electoral farce and accepted the killing of at least 30  pro-democracy demonstrators in the weeks after the election.

Over the past decade Ottawa has reinforced Honduran impoverishment and political dysfunction. The corporations, their paid lobbyists and the politicians who follow their orders clearly prefer this status quo.

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Trudeau government squeezes Cuba

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Chrystia Freeland and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez

Ottawa faces a dilemma. How far are Trudeau’s Liberals prepared to go in squeezing Cuba? Can Canadian corporations with interests on the island restrain the most pro-US, anti-socialist, elements of the ruling class?

Recently, the Canadian Embassy in Havana closed its Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship section. Now most Cubans wanting to visit Canada or get work/study permits will have to travel to a Canadian embassy in another country to submit their documents. In some cases Cubans will have to travel to another country at least twice to submit information to enter Canada. The draconian measure has already undercut cultural exchange and family visits, as described in a Toronto Star op-ed titled “Canada closes a door on Cuban culture”.

It’s rare for an embassy to simply eliminate visa processing, but what’s prompted this measure is the stuff of science fiction. Canada’s embassy staff was cut in half in January after diplomats became ill following a mysterious ailment that felled US diplomats sent to Cuba after Donald Trump’s election. Four months after the first US diplomats (apparently) became ill US ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis met his Canadian, British and French counterparts to ask if any of their staff were sick. According to a recent New York Times Magazine story, “none knew of any similar experiences afflicting their officials in Cuba. But after the Canadian ambassador notified his staff, 27 officials and family members there asked to be tested. Twelve were found to be suffering from a variety of symptoms, similar to those experienced by the Americans.”

With theories ranging from “mass hysteria” to the sounds of “Indies short-tailed crickets” to an “outbreak of functional disorders”, the medical questions remains largely unresolved. The politics of the affair are far clearer. In response, the Trump Administration withdrew most of its embassy staff in Havana and expelled Cuban diplomats from Washington. They’ve rolled back measures the Obama Administration instituted to re-engage with Cuba and recently implemented an extreme measure even the George W. Bush administration shied away from.

Ottawa has followed along partly because it’s committed to overthrowing Venezuela’s government and an important talking point of the anti-Nicolás Maduro coalition is that Havana is propping him up. On May 3 Justin Trudeau called Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel to pressure him to join Ottawa’s effort to oust President Maduro. The release noted, “the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Lima Group [of countries hostile to Maduro], underscored the desire to see free and fair elections and the constitution upheld in Venezuela.” Four days later Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland added to the diplomatic pressure on Havana. She told reporters, “Cuba needs to not be part of the problem in Venezuela, but become part of the solution.” A week later Freeland visited Cuba to discuss Venezuela.

On Tuesday Freeland talked with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Venezuela and Cuba. Afterwards the State Department tweeted, “Secretary Pompeo spoke with Canada’s Foreign Minister Freeland to discuss ongoing efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela. The Secretary and Foreign Minister agreed to continue working together to press the Cuban regime to provide for a democratic and prosperous future for the people of Cuba.”

Ottawa supports putting pressure on Cuba in the hopes of further isolating/demonizing the Maduro government. But, the Trudeau government is simultaneously uncomfortable with how the US campaign against Cuba threatens the interests of some Canadian-owned businesses.

The other subject atop the agenda when Freeland traveled to Havana was Washington’s decision to allow lawsuits for property confiscated after the 1959 Cuban revolution. The Trump Administration recently activated a section of the Helms-Burton Act that permits Cubans and US citizens to sue foreign companies doing business in Cuba over property nationalized decades ago. The move could trigger billions of dollars in legal claims in US courts against Canadian and European businesses operating on the island.

Obviously, Canadian firms that extract Cuban minerals and deliver over a million vacationers to the Caribbean country each year don’t want to be sued in US courts. They want Ottawa’s backing, but the Trudeau government’s response to Washington’s move has been relatively muted. This speaks to Trudeau/Freeland’s commitment to overthrowing Venezuela’s government.

But, it also reflects the broader history of Canada-Cuba ties. Despite the hullabaloo around Ottawa’s seemingly cordial relations with Havana, the reality is more complicated than often presented. Similar to Venezuela today, Ottawa has previously aligned with US fear-mongering about the “Cuban menace” in Latin America and elsewhere. Even Prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who famously declared “viva Castro” during a trip to that country in 1976, denounced (highly altruistic) Cuban efforts to defend newly independent Angola from apartheid South Africa’s invasion. In response, Trudeau stated, “Canada disapproves with horror [of] participation of Cuban troops in Africa” and later terminated the Canadian International Development Agency’s small aid program in Cuba as a result.

After the 1959 Cuban revolution Ottawa never broke off diplomatic relations, even though most other countries in the hemisphere did. Three Nights in Havana explains part of why Ottawa maintained diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba: “Recently declassified State Department documents have revealed that, far from encouraging Canada to support the embargo, the United States secretly urged Diefenbaker to maintain normal relations because it was thought that Canada would be well positioned to gather intelligence on the island.” Washington was okay with Canada’s continued relations with the island. It simply wanted assurances, which were promptly given, that Canada wouldn’t take over the trade the US lost. For their part, Canadian business interests in the country, which were sizable, were generally less hostile to the revolution since they were mostly compensated when their operations were nationalized. Still, the more ideological elements of corporate Canada have always preferred the Cuban model didn’t exist.

If a Canadian company is sued in the US for operating in Cuba Ottawa will face greater pressure to push back on Washington. If simultaneously the Venezuelan government remains, Ottawa’s ability to sustain its position against Cuba and Venezuela is likely to become even more difficult.

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