Tag Archives: Ben Rowswell

Mainstream media boosts Trudeau’s popularity over Venezuela

US presidents have bombed or invaded places like Grenada, Panama, Iraq and Sudan to distract from domestic scandals or to gain a quick boost in popularity. But, do Canadian politicians also pursue regime change abroad to be cheered on by the dominant media as decisive leaders?

In a discussion on regime change in Venezuela after last Monday’s “Lima Group” meeting in Ottawa, Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole praised Canadian policy but added that the Liberals used the meeting of countries opposed to Nicolas Maduro’s government to drown out criticism of their foreign policy. O’Toole claimed the “Lima Group” meeting was “put together quite quickly and I think there are some politics behind that with some of the foreign affairs challenges the Trudeau government has been having in recent months.” In other words, O’Toole believes the Liberals organized a gathering that concluded with a call for the military to oust Venezuela’s elected president to appear like effective international players.

Understood within the broader corporate and geopolitical context, O’Toole’s assessment appears reasonable. After being criticized for its China policy, the Liberals have been widely praised for their regime change efforts in Venezuela. In a sign of media cheerleading, CTV News host Don Martin began his post “Lima Group” interview with foreign minister Chrystia Freeland by stating “the Lima summit has wrapped and the object of regime change is staying put for the time being” and then he asked her “is [Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro any step closer to being kicked out of office as a result of this meeting today?” Later in the interview Martin applauded the “Lima Group’s” bid “to put the economic pincers around it [Venezuela’s economy] and choking it off from international transactions.”

In recent days Ben Rowswell, a former Canadian ambassador in Caracas, has been widely quoted praising the Liberals’ leadership on Venezuela. “It’s clear that the international community is paying attention to what Canada has to say about human rights and democracy,” Rowswell was quoted as saying in an article titled “Trudeau’s Venezuela diplomacy is a bright spot amid China furor”.

Rowswell heads the Canadian International Council, which seeks to “integrate business leaders with the best researchers and public policy leaders”, according to its billionaire financier Jim Balsillie. Long an influential voice on foreign policy, CIC hosted the above-mentioned forum with O’Toole that also included the Liberal’s junior foreign minister Andrew Leslie and NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière. CIC’s post “Lima Group” meeting forum was co-sponsored with the Canadian Council of the Americas, which is led by Kinross, Kinross, ScotiaBank, KPMG and SNC Lavalin. On the day of the “Lima Group” meeting CCA head Ken Frankel published an op-ed in the Globe and Mail headlined “Venezuela crisis will be a true test of Canada’s leadership in the hemisphere.” Frankel told CPAC he was “always supportive of Canadian leadership in the Hemisphere” and “the Venezuela situation has presented … a perfect opportunity for the Trudeau government to showcase the principles of its foreign policy.”

At the CCA/CIC forum Laverdière made it clear there’s little official political opposition to Ottawa’s regime change efforts. The NDP’s foreign critic agreed with Canada’s recognition of Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela, as she did on Twitter, at a press scrum and on CPAC during the day of the “Lima Group” meeting in Ottawa. (Amidst criticism from NDP activists, party leader Jagmeet Singh later equivocated on explicitly recognizing Guaidó.)

With the NDP, Conservatives, CIC, CCA, most media, etc. supporting regime change in Venezuela, there is little downside for the Liberals to push an issue they believe boosts their international brand. To get a sense of their brashness, the day of the “Lima Group” meeting the iconic CN Tower in Toronto was lit up with the colours of the Venezuelan flag. A tweet from Global Affairs Canada explained, “As the sun sets on today’s historic Lima Group meeting, Venezuela’s colours shine bright on Canada’s CN Tower to show our support for the people of Venezuela and their fight for democracy.”

The Liberals drive for regime change in Venezuela to mask other foreign-policy problem is reminiscent of Stephen Harper’s push to bomb Libya. Facing criticism for weakening Canada’s moral reputation and failing to win a seat on the UN Security Council, a Canadian general oversaw NATO’s war, seven  CF-18s participated in bombing runs and two Royal Canadian Navy vessels patrolled Libya’s coast.

The mission, which began six weeks before the 2011 federal election, may have helped the Conservatives win a majority government. At the time Postmedia published a story titled “Libya ‘photo op’ gives Harper advantage: experts” and Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom published a commentary titled “Libyan war could be a winner for Harper”.  He wrote: “War fits with the Conservative storyline of Harper as a strong, decisive leader. War against a notorious villain contradicts opposition charges of Conservative moral bankruptcy. The inevitable media stories of brave Canadian pilots and grateful Libyan rebels can only distract attention from the Conservative government’s real failings.”

Similar to Venezuela today, the regime change effort in Libya was unanimously endorsed in Parliament (three months into the bombing campaign Green Party MP Elizabeth May voted against a second resolution endorsing a continuation of the war). “It’s appropriate for Canada to be a part of this effort to try to stop Gadhafi from attacking his citizens as he has been threatening to do,’’ said NDP leader Jack Layton. After Moammar Gaddafi was savagely killed six months later, NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel released a statement noting, “the future of Libya now belongs to all Libyans. Our troops have done a wonderful job in Libya over the past few months.”

Emboldened by the opposition parties, the Conservatives organized a nationally televised post-war celebration for Canada’s “military heroes”, which included flyovers from a dozen military aircraft. Calling it “a day of honour”, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the 300 military personnel brought in from four bases: “We are celebrating a great military success.”

Today Libya is, of course, a disaster. It is still divided into various warring factions and hundreds of militias operate in the country of six million.

But who in Canada ever paid a political price for the destruction of that country and resulting destabilization of much of the Sahel region of Africa?

A similar scenario could develop in Venezuela. Canadian politicians’ push for the military to remove the president could easily slide into civil war and pave the way to a foreign invasion that leads to a humanitarian calamity. If that happened, Canadian politicians, as in Libya, would simply wash their hands of the intervention.

Canadians need to reflect on a political culture in which governing parties encourage regime change abroad with an eye to their domestic standing.

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Canadian interference in Venezuela domestic affairs decades old

According to the official story that the Liberal government and most of the mainstream media have been trying to sell, Ottawa recently recognized the leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly as that country’s president because Nicolas Maduro suspended the constitution 18 months ago and thus lost legitimacy. Thus, Ottawa intervened aggressively to re-establish democratic order there. But this narrative of Canada’s involvement omits its long-standing hostility to the Venezuelan government.

In recent days Canada’s former ambassador to Venezuela, Ben Rowswell, has repeatedly claimed that Canada’s effort to overthrow Venezuela’s government began with Maduro’s call for a Constituent Assembly in July 2017, which Rowswell considers illegitimate. Canada’s “approach to democracy promotion … can be traced to the summer of 2017, when Nicolas Maduro suspended the constitutional order,” he wrote in a Globe and Mail op-ed.

Ottawa wasn’t overly concerned about democracy in April 2002 when a military coup took Chavez prisoner and imposed an unelected government.

But Rowswell knows this is not true. In fact, when he departed as ambassador in July 2017, he sang a different tune, boasting that “we established quite a significant internet presence inside Venezuela, so that we could then engage tens of thousands of Venezuelan citizens in a conversation on human rights. We became one of the most vocal embassies in speaking out on human rights issues and encouraging Venezuelans to speak out.”

At the time, Rowswell told the Ottawa Citizen, that anti-Maduro forces need not worry about his departure, “I don’t think they have anything to worry about because Minister (of Foreign Affairs Chrystia) Freeland has Venezuela way at the top of her priority list.”

Direct Canadian assistance to the opposition dates to at least the mid-2000s. In January 2005, Foreign Affairs invited Maria Corina Machado to Ottawa. Machado was in charge of Súmate, an organization at the forefront of efforts to remove Hugo Chavez as president. Just prior to this invitation, Súmate had led an unsuccessful campaign to recall Chavez through a referendum in August 2004. Before that, Machado’s name appeared on a list of people who endorsed the 2002 coup, for which she faced charges of treason. She denied signing the now-infamous Carmona Decree that dissolved the National Assembly and Supreme Court and suspended the elected government, the attorney general, comptroller general, and governors as well as mayors elected during Chavez’s administration. It also annulled land reforms and reversed increases in royalties paid by oil companies.

Canada also helped finance Súmate. According to disclosures made in response to a question by NDP foreign affairs critic Alexa McDonough, 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.”

Alongside large sums from Washington, Canada has provided millions of dollars to groups opposed to the Venezuelan government over the past 15 years. The foremost researcher on U.S. funding to opposition groups in Venezuela, Eva Golinger, cited Canada’s role, 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.

In a 2011 International Journal article Neil A. 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 wasn’t overly concerned about democracy in April 2002 when a military coup took Chavez prisoner and imposed an unelected government. It lasted only two days before popular demonstrations, a split within the army, and international condemnation returned the elected government. While most Latin American leaders condemned the coup, Canadian diplomats were silent.

“In the Venezuelan coup in 2002, Canada maintained a low profile, probably because it was sensitive to the United States ambivalence towards Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez,” writes Flavie Major in the book Promoting Democracy in the Americas.

The Stephen Harper government didn’t hide its hostility to Chavez. When Chavez was re-elected president with 63 per cent of the vote in December 2006, 32 members of the Organization of American States — which monitored the election — supported a resolution to congratulate him. Canada was the only member to join the U.S. in opposing the message.

Just after Chavez’s re-election, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for hemispheric affairs, Thomas Shannon, called Canada “a country that can deliver messages that can resonate in ways that sometimes our messages don’t for historical or psychological reasons.” Six months later Harper toured South America to help stunt the region’s rejection of neoliberalism and U.S. dependence. (“To show [the region] that Canada functions and that it can be a better model than Venezuela,” in the words of a high-level Foreign Affairs official quoted by Le Devoir.)

During the trip, Harper and his entourage made a number of comments critical of the Chavez government. Afterwards the prime minister continued to demonize a government that had massively expanded the population’s access to health and education services. In April 2009 Harper responded to a question regarding Venezuela by saying, “I don’t take any of these rogue states lightly.” A month earlier, the prime minister referred to the far-right Colombian government as a valuable “ally” in a hemisphere full of “serious enemies and opponents.”

After meeting opposition figures in January 2010, Minister for the Americas Peter Kent told the media, “Democratic space within Venezuela has been shrinking and in this election year, Canada is very concerned about the rights of all Venezuelans to participate in the democratic process.”

“During my recent visit to Venezuela, I heard many individuals and organizations express concerns related to violations of the right to freedom of expression and other basic liberties,” said Kent.

Virginie Levesque, a spokesperson for the Canadian Embassy in Venezuela, also accused the Chavez government of complicity with racism against Jews.

“The Canadian Embassy has encouraged and continues to encourage the Venezuelan government to follow through on its commitment to reject and combat anti-Semitism and to do its utmost to ensure the security of the Jewish community and its religious and cultural centers” said Levesque.

Even the head of Canada’s military joined the onslaught of condemnation against Venezuela. After a tour of South America in early 2010, Walter Natynczyk wrote:,“Regrettably, some countries, such as Venezuela, are experiencing the politicization of their armed forces.” (A Canadian general criticizing another country’s military is, of course, not political.)

After Chavez died in 2013 Harper declared that Venezuelans “can now build for themselves a better, brighter future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.” And when Maduro won the presidential election later that year Ottawa called for a recount, refusing to at first to recognize the results.

Canada’s bid to oust Venezuela’s elected president is not new. These efforts have grown over the past year and a half mostly because of Venezuela’s economic troubles, the rightward shift in the region, and Donald Trump’s hawkishness on the issue.

This report first appeared on Ricochet

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