Tag Archives: Foro Penal

Ottawa in bed with anti-democratic, hardline part of Venezuela’s opposition

Trudeau-Tintori

Justin Trudeau and Irwin Cotler with Voluntad Popular’s Antonieta López and Lilian Tintori

Not only has Canada financed and otherwise supported opposition parties in Venezuela, Ottawa has allied with some of its most anti-democratic, hardline elements. While the Liberal government has openly backed Voluntad Popular’s bid to seize power since January, Ottawa has supported the electorally marginal party for years.

Juan Guaidó’s VP (Popular Will in English) party has repeatedly instigated violent protests. Not long after the Democratic Unity Roundtable opposition coalition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles effectively conceded defeat in January 2014, VP leader Leopoldo López launched La Salida (exit/departure) in a bid to oust Nicolas Maduro. VP activists formed the shock troops of “guarimbas” protests that left forty-three Venezuelans dead, 800 hurt and a great deal of property damaged in 2014. Dozens more were killed in a new wave of VP backed protests in 2017.

Effective at stoking violence, VP has failed to win many votes. It took 8% of the seats in the 2015 elections that saw the opposition win control of the National Assembly. With 14 out of 167 deputies in the Assembly, it won the four most seats in the Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition. In the December 2012 regional elections VP was the sixth most successful party and did little better in the next year’s municipal elections.

VP was founded at the end of 2009 by Leopoldo López who “has long had close contact with American diplomats”, reported the Wall Street Journal. A great-great-grand nephew of independence leader Simón Bolívar, grandson of a former cabinet member and great-grandson of a president, López was schooled at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Between 2000 and 2008 López was the relatively successful and popular mayor of the affluent 65,000 person Caracas municipality of Chacao.

During the 2002 military coup López “orchestrated the public protests against [President Hugo] Chávez and he played a central role in the citizen’s arrest of Chavez’s interior minister.” He was given a 13-year jail sentence for inciting and planning violence during the 2014 “guarimbas” protests.

Canadian officials have had significant contact with López’s emissaries and party. In November 2014 Lilian Tintori visited Ottawa to meet foreign minister John Baird, Conservative cabinet colleague Jason Kenney and opposition MPs. After meeting López’s wife, Baird called for his release and other “political prisoners”, which referred to a number of other VP representatives.

Three months later VP National Political Coordinator Carlos Vecchio visited Ottawa with Leopoldo López’s sister Diana López and Orlando Viera-Blanco to speak to the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. At a press conference, “Popular Will’s international wing” denounced the Venezuelan government and spoke at a McGill University forum on “Venezuela in Crisis: The Decline of Democracy and the Repression of Human Rights.”

Vecchio was appointed as the Guaidó phantom government’s “ambassador” to the US and Orlando Viera-Blanco was named its “ambassador” to Canada. In October 2017 Vecchio and VP deputy Bibiana Lucas attended the anti-Maduro Lima Group meeting in Toronto.

In June 2015 VP councillor of Sucre, Dario Eduardo Ramirez, spoke to the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. In May 2016 VP Assistant National Political Coordinator Freddy Guevara and VP founding member Luis Germán Florido met foreign minister Stéphane Dion and members of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee to denounce Maduro’s government. During the trip VP’s Coordinator of International Relations Manuel Avendaño and an aide Abraham Valencia published an opinion in the Hill Times titled “Venezuela is on the brink of disaster. Here’s how Canada can help.”

The Canadian embassy in Caracas and former ambassador Ben Rowswell worked with VP officials pushing for the overthrow of the elected government. The runner-up for the embassy’s 2012 “Human Rights Prize”, Tamara Adrián, represents VP in the National Assembly. At the embassy during the presentation of the 2014 human rights award to anti-government groups were López’s lawyers and wife. In response, then president of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello accused Rowswell of supporting coup plotters.

The leader of VP in Yaracuy state, Gabriel Gallo, was runner-up for the embassy’s 2015 human rights award. A coordinator of the Foro Penal NGO, Gallo was also photographed with Rowswell at the embassy’s 2017 human rights prize ceremony.

The Montreal based Canadian Venezuelan Engagement Foundation is closely aligned with VP. Its president is Guaidó’s “ambassador” to Canada — Viera-Blanco — and its founding director is Alessa Polga whose LinkedIn page describes her as VP Canada’s Subcoordinator and Intergovernmental Relations. Polga has been invited to speak before the House of Commons and in 2017 demanded Canada follow the US in adopting sanctions on Venezuela. Justin Trudeau offered words of solidarity for a recent Canadian Venezuelan Engagement Foundation “Gala for Venezuela” in Toronto.

In 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018 VP youth outreach leader and former mayor David Smolansky spoke at the Halifax International Security Conference. During his 2018 trip to Nova Scotia Smolansky published an opinion piece in the Halifax Chronicle Herald claiming, “more than just a failed state, Venezuela is a criminal state.”

In May 2017 Tintori met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the leaders of the opposition parties. In response, Venezuela’s Foreign Affairs Minister Delcy Rodríguez described Lopez’s wife as an “agent of intervention” who claims the “false position of victim” while she’s aligned with “fascist” forces in Venezuela.

Three months earlier Tintori met US President Donald Trump and The Guardian reported on her role in building international support for the plan to anoint VP deputy Guaidó interim president. According to the Canadian Press, Canadian diplomats spent “months” working on that effort and the Associated Press described Canada’s “key role” in building international support for claiming a relatively marginal National Assembly member was Venezuela’s president. Presumably, Canada’s “special coordinator for Venezuela” organized these efforts which included foreign minister Chrystia Freeland speaking to Guaidó “the night before Maduro’s swearing-in ceremony to offer her government’s support should he confront the socialist leader.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has spoken with Guaidó at least twice since.

Canada has strengthened VP’s hardline position within the opposition. A February Wall Street Journal article titled “‘What the Hell Is Going On?’ How a Small Group Seized Control of Venezuela’s Opposition” noted that leading opposition figures on stage with Guaidó when he declared himself interim president had no idea of his plan despite it being reliant on the Democratic Unity Roundtable’s agreement to rotate the National Assembly presidency within the coalition. (VP’s turn came due in January).

Venezuelans require a vibrant opposition that challenges the government. They don’t need Canada to boost an electorally marginal party that drives the country into increasing conflict.

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Canada’s meddling in Venezuela: the case of Ben Rowswell

Poster for Ben Rowswell’s tour across Canada.

Why does the dominant media pay so much attention to Russian “meddling” in other countries, but little to Canada’s longstanding interference in the political affairs of nations thousands of kilometres from our borders?

The case of Ben Rowswell illustrates the double standard well.

The current Canadian International Council President has been the leading non-governmental advocate of Ottawa’s quest to overthrow Venezuela’s government. In dozens of interviews, op-eds, tweets and ongoing speaking tour the former ambassador has put a liberal gloss on four months of naked imperialism. But, Rowswell has been involved in efforts to oust Nicolas Maduro since 2014 despite repeatedly claiming the president’s violation of the constitution two years ago provoked Ottawa’s recent campaign.

A March 2014 Venezuela Analysis story suggested the early adopter of digital communications was dispatched to Caracas in the hopes of boosting opposition to a government weakened by an economic downturn, the death of its leader and violent protests. Titled “New Ambassador Modernizes Canada’s Hidden Agenda in Venezuela”, the story pointed out that Rowswell immediately set up a new embassy Twitter account, soon followed by another titled SeHablaDDHH (Let’s Talk Human Rights), to rally “the angry middle classes on Twitter.” The article noted that “Rowswell is the best man to encourage such a ‘democratic’ counterrevolution, given his pedigree” in digital and hotspot diplomacy. According to a March 2014 Embassy story titled “Canada dispatches digital diplomacy devotee to Caracas”, just before the Venezuela assignment “Ottawa’s top digital diplomat … helped to establish a communications platform for Iranians and Iranian emigrants to communicate with each other, and occasionally the Canadian government, beyond the reach of that country’s censors.” Previously, Rowswell was chargé d’affaires in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion and headed the NATO Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar during the war there. An international strategy advisor in the Privy Council Office during Stephen Harper and Jean Chrétien’s tenure, Rowswell created Global Affairs Canada’ Democracy Unit. Rowswell also worked with the Washington based Center for Strategic and International Studies, whose board of trustees includes Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the National Democratic Institute, which is part of the US National Endowment for Democracy that performs work the CIA previously did covertly.

Believing he was sent to conspire with the opposition, Caracas refused to confirm Rowswell’s appointment as ambassador. Former vice president and foreign minister José Vicente Rangel twice accused Rowswell of seeking to overthrow the government. On a July 2014 episode of his weekly television program José Vicente Hoy Rangel said, “the Embassy of Canada appears more and more involved in weird activities against the Venezuelan constitutional government.” The former Vice President claimed Canada’s diplomatic mission helped more than two dozen individuals of an “important intelligence organization” enter the country. Three months later Rangel accused Canadian officials of trying to destabilize the country by making unfounded claims Maduro supported drug trafficking and gave passports to terrorists.

In early 2015 then president of the National Assembly (not to be confused with Venezuela’s president) Diosdado Cabello accused the Canadian embassy of complicity in a failed coup. According to Cabello, an RCMP official attached to the embassy, Nancy Birbeck, visited an airport in Valencia with a member of the UK diplomatic corps to investigate its capabilities as part of the plot.

The president of the National Assembly also criticized Rowswell for presenting a human rights award to anti-government groups. Cabello said the ambassador “offered these distinctions to people of proven conspiratorial activity and who violate the fundamental rights to life of all Venezuelans.” At the embassy during the award ceremony were the lawyers and wife (Lilian Tintori) of Leopoldo López who endorsed the military’s 2002 coup against President Hugo Chavez and was convicted of inciting violence during the 2014 “guarimbas” protests that sought to oust Maduro. Forty-three Venezuelans died, hundreds were hurt and a great deal of property was damaged during the “guarimbas” protests. Lopez was a key organizer of the recent plan to anoint Juan Guaidó interim president and Tintori met Donald Trump and other international officials, including the prime minister and many others in Ottawa, to build international support for the recent coup efforts.

Rowswell appears to have had significant contact with López and Guaidó’s Voluntad Popular party. He was photographed with Voluntad Popular’s leader in Yaracuy state, Gabriel Gallo, at the embassy’s 2017 human rights award ceremony. Gallo was a coordinator of NGO Foro Penal, which was runner-up for the embassy’s 2015 Human Rights Award. (The runner-up for the 2012 award, Tamara Adrián represents Voluntad Popular in the national assembly.)

The embassy’s “Human Rights Prize” is co-sponsored with the Centro para la Paz y los Derechos Humanos. The director of that organization, Raúl Herrera, repeatedly denounced the Venezuelan government, saying, “the Venezuelan state systematically and repeatedly violates the Human Rights of Venezuelans.”

The “Human Rights Prize” is designed to amplify and bestow legitimacy on anti-government voices. The winner gets a “tour of several cities in Venezuela to share his or her experiences with other organizations promoting of human rights” and a trip to Canada to meet with “human rights authorities and organizations.” They generally present to Canadian Parliamentary Committees and garner media attention. The Venezuelan NGOs most quoted in the Canadian media in recent months criticizing the country’s human rights situation — Provea, Foro Penal, CODEVIDA, Observatorio Venezolano de la Conflictividad, Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones, etc. — have been formally recognized by the Canadian embassy.

During Rowswell’s tenure at the embassy Canada financed NGOs with the expressed objective of embarrassing the government internationally. According to the government’s response to a July 2017 Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade report on Venezuela, “CFLI [Canadian Funding to Local Initiatives] programming includes support for a local NGO documenting the risks to journalists and freedom of expression in Venezuela, in order to provide important statistical evidence to the national and international community on the worsening condition of basic freedoms in the country.” Another CFLI initiative funded during Rowswell’s tenure in Caracas “enabled Venezuelan citizens to anonymously register and denounce corruption abuses by government officials and police through a mobile phone application.”

Just after resigning as ambassador, Rowswell told the Ottawa Citizen: “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.”

Can you imagine the hue and cry if a Venezuelan ambassador said something similar about Canada? In recent months there have been a number of parliamentary committee and intelligence reports about Russian interference in Canada based on far less. Last month Justin Trudeau claimed, “countries like Russia are behind a lot of the divisive campaigns … that have turned our politics even more divisive and more anger-filled than they have been in the past.” That statement is 100 times more relevant to Canada/Rowswell’s interference in Venezuela than Russia’s role here.

Recently Rowswell has been speaking across the country on “How Democracy Dies: Lessons from Venezuela and the U.S.”

I wonder if the talk includes any discussion of Canadian diplomats deployed to interfere in other country’s political affairs?

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