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Canadian foreign policy and involvement in war crimes: Venezuela?

As many of you are aware, Science for Peace has been a strong promoter of the UN treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons that has just come into effect.   Canada is not a signatory to this treaty and we are currently trying to pressure our government to sign on and bring its foreign policy in line with its requirements.   This has led to discussions of other aspects of Canadian foreign policy that are contrary to aspects of international law and to Canadian complicity in the commission of war crimes around the world.   Is Canada complicit in war crimes?  To many Canadians and indeed to some of our members, this assertion comes as a surprise.  Canada is not currently involved in combat in any area of ongoing hostilities that most of us are aware of.   Most of us are inclined to believe that “Canada the good” is a law-abiding member of the international community.    Things are not quite so simple however, and understanding the complexities of these issues will go a long way to helping many of us to understand why Canada was once again rejected in its application for a seat on the UN security council.

There are a number of examples of problematic aspects of our foreign policies that could shed light on this question: arms sales to Saudi Arabia used in its war in Yemen, Canadian complicity in the destruction of Libya and its role in Haiti come to mind.   To me, one of the most problematic aspects of its foreign policy currently is Canada’s continuing role in attempts to overthrow the government of Venezuela.   

Venezuela became “problematic” when it elected Hugo Chavez, a former army colonel (who had spent 2 years in prison for attempting to oust Carlos Anders Perez from the presidency in a military coup in 1992), as its president by a landslide in 1998.   Chavez launched what he called “the Bolivarian Revolution”, a socialist inspired attempt to restructure Venezuelan society in a radically more egalitarian manner.   The initial successes he achieved, mostly by distributing Venezuela’s oil revenues to programs geared to the underprivileged (public housing, education, health care…) at a time of unprecedented oil prices, earned him the gratitude and support of the impoverished majority of Venezuelans and the animosity of the Venezuelan traditional elites and the U.S. government.   They also inspired a wave of reformist governments throughout the hemisphere that became known as the “pink tide”.    These governments participated in a project to remove Latin America from U.S. domination through the “Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America” (ALBA), a serious challenge to U.S. hegemony in the hemisphere.

Repeated attempts by the traditional parties to remove him from office by constitutional means failed as Chavez won election (described by president Carter as a model of accountability and transparency) after election with wide margins.   Since at least April 2002, the old elites attempted to return to power by extraconstitutional means with the help of the U.S., which immediately recognized a coup that removed Chavez from power in that month but was forced out of office by a popular uprising a few days later.   The traditional elites continued to attempt to regain power by various means but in the context of historically unprecedented oil prices and the social spending they made possible, had little success.   Chavez, in the first decade and a half of his rule had more or less eliminated extreme poverty and illiteracy in Venezuela and had substantially increased the standard of living of the majority.   That in turn began to change with the collapse of oil prices in 2008/9.  Despite his declared intention to do so Chavez was no more successful at diversifying the economy and overcoming Venezuela’s dependence on oil than his predecessors.  Chavez, a very charismatic and skilled politician died of cancer in 2013 and was replaced by his chosen successor, the far less charismatic Nicholas Maduro.

All that is of course ancient history and I have no evidence that Canada played any role at this point, certainly none that is problematic from the point of view of international law.   That began to change under the presidency of Barak Obama, who in 2015 declared Venezuela a threat to US national security justifying the imposition of economic sanctions on the country.

(How a country with virtually no Navy or Airforce is a threat to the U.S. was never explained).  

The administration of Donald Trump doubled down on this sanctions policy, applying a “maximum pressure strategy” with the expressed purpose of bringing about regime change.   They also put pressure on opposition parties to boycott the 2018 presidential elections, which all but one opposition candidate did.     This became the basis for the U.S. not to recognize the legitimacy of Maduro’s victory.  ( It is in this context that Canada took the lead in forming what became known as “the Lima Group”, bringing together 12 (now 17) more right leaning governments in the western hemisphere to bring about regime change in Venezuela.   This all came to a head when the U.S. and the members of the Lima Group (as well as 50 states around the world) withdrew their recognition of Nicolas Maduro as the legitimate head of the Venezuelan state and recognized instead Juan Guaido, leader of the a small far right party, as the legitimate president.   

Now it must be pointed out that the cornerstone of international law as embodied in the UN charter is the principle of sovereignty, which can only be violated with the authorization of the U.N. security council.   Most of us tend to think of invasions or bombing campaigns as examples of violations of a country’s sovereignty, but under international law sovereignty includes the ability of a state to manage its external affairs, including trade.   The imposition of sanctions by the U.S. is furthermore not just a refusal of the U.S. to trade with Venezuela but in effect the imposition of a form of blockade, cutting Venezuela off from its ability to among other things, process payments for imported goods.  As such it is a form of economic warfare.    Without an authorization from the U.N. security council such policies are illegal.

While it is perfectly legal under the U.N. charter, to make “regional arrangements” to assist in the “maintenance of international peace and security” (UN Charter Chapter VIII, Article 52, paragraph 1), the Lima Group strays into illegality when it engages in “enforcement actions” against a fellow member state of the UN.   Such “enforcement actions” require authorization by the UNSC (UN Charter, Chapter VIII, Article 53, Paragraph 1).    The Lima Group has not claimed to have such authorization and is thus illegal under the UN Charter which does not allow states to “intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”.

All of the members of the Lima Group are also members of the OAS, as is Venezuela.   The OAS has similar commitments to non–interference in the internal affairs of states.  In its charter member states pledge to follow the “principle of non-intervention” (OAS Charter, Chapter I, Article 2, Section b).   It goes on to state that: “No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State. The foregoing principle prohibits not only armed force but also any other form of interference or attempted threat against the personality of the State or against its political, economic, and cultural elements.” (OAS Charter, Chapter IV, Article 19)

Supporters of the Lima group would no doubt argue that the current crisis in Venezuela is the result of corruption and gross incompetency in the Maduro government and not the result of U.S. imposed sanctions or their actions.   They would also likely point to the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine and the fact that the UNSC is crippled by the power of Russia and China to veto an intervention.   It would be absurd to claim that there has not been some corruption and incompetence in the governments of Hugo Chavez and Nicholas Maduro.  In my many years of studying politics I have not come across a government that is free from these problems. It is equally problematic to claim that Venezuela’s enormous crisis is primarily the result of corruption. I spent close to a year in Venezuela in the 80s and I was indeed impressed with the fabulous standard of living enjoyed by many Venezuelans. One would have had to be willfully blind however, not to notice that the vast majority of the population where excluded from this, lived in makeshift shanties, lacked access to education and health care in one of the most inegalitarian country in the Western Hemisphere if not the world.   This maldistribution of resources was the product of the large–scale corruption of governments prior to the election of Chavez, that are well documented.  This reality explains the continuing appeal of Hugo Chavez who drastically reduced poverty and more or less eliminated extreme poverty on the basis of the $90 billion oil revenues produced by PDVSA (the Venezuelan State–owned oil company) under his watch.  President Maduro while lacking the personal appeal of Chavez, has none the less received the loyalty of many who benefitted from Chavez’s policies.  The two factors that are responsible for the bulk of the problems Venezuela now confronts are the collapse of oil prices after 2008 (from close to $140/barrel to below $20/barrel) which devastated Venezuela (as well Alberta) and sanctions imposed by the Obama and Trump administrations, on the absurd claim that the country is a threat to U.S. security.   Indeed, when the UN sent Alfred Zelaya of the UNHCR to investigate the crisis causing millions of refugees to flee, he concluded that the sanctions where primarily responsible.

It is not difficult to understand how Mr. Zelaya came to that conclusion.   The sanctions regime cut Venezuela off of its imports, which included food, medicines and medical equipment, machinery and spare parts for its industries and gasoline, which among other things is required to dilute Venezuela’s heavy oil to allow it to flow through pipelines to refineries.    If that was not enough, recognizing Guaido as the legitimate head of state resulted in the UK denying Venezuela’s government access to 2 billion in Gold reserves held in its banks and the U.S. essentially seizing CITGO, the Venezuelan owned chain of gas stations.    The estimates of the human cost of this in terms of premature and unnecessary deaths are in the tens of thousands.

The whole scheme involving Guaido appears to have completely fallen apart.    His party was roundly defeated in the latest legislative elections (which of course the U.S. and Lima Group refused to recognize as legitimate despite a wide spectrum of opposition parties participating in them.  See the article cited above.) and even some of his far–right supporters like Henrique Capriles have distanced themselves from him.   The EU has shifted to recognizing the Maduro government but there is no sign that either Washington or Ottawa have changed their tunes.   The newly appointed U.S. secretary of State Anthony Blinken declared in his confirmation hearings in front of the Senate that his government would continue to recognize Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela.

It is worth contemplating how all of this might have played out had the Guaido scheme been “more successful”.    I suspect that the expectation of Mike Pence, Elliot Abrams, Chrystia Freeland and Justin Trudeau where that with the backing of the U.S. and the “international community” (only 50 states out of close to 200 members of the UN recognized Guaido)  Guaido would quickly get the support of the armed forces in Venezuela and that would be the end of the story.   This was a fantasy!    To understand why it is worth keeping in mind that Mr. Chavez began his career in the military, one of the only routes to upward mobility for those of his background (color).    By the time he attempted the coup in 92, he had substantial support among the lower ranks of the military but not the top brass.   That remained the case after his election and explains why the coup against his government in 2002 failed.   When the top brass ordered troops to put down pro Chavez demonstrations, the lower ranks refused.    This allowed Chavez to purge the disloyal generals and cement his control over the armed forces.    Maduro does not have a military background but has been very careful not to alienate the armed forces.   In the expectation of a “bay of pigs” style intervention, Chavez and Maduro have also expanded civilian militias to “defend the revolution”.   

In other words, had the Guaido claim to power been more successful it might at best have split the military along ideological lines.   To put it more bluntly, it would have plunged Venezuela into a civil war that would have resulted in a far greater loss of life and turned the flow of refugees out of the country into a flood.

It might also be worth asking why the U.S. and Canadas government decided to engage in this project.   The obvious answers: the responsibility to protect human rights, democracy promotion etc. don’t really make any sense given the close relations between Canada and the U.S. maintain with states like Honduras, Colombia, Saudi Arabi and Egypt with far worse human rights issues than Venezuela (not to mention corruption).   It is not the welfare of Venezuelans that is driving U.S. or Canadian policy any more than it was in the “humanitarian” intervention in Libya.   Venezuela, like Libya was seen as an intolerable challenge to U.S. hegemony.   But beyond this and again like Libya, smashing the regime (not just the government) of Venezuela would open up a bonanza of potential privatizations of everything from petroleum reserves to gold deposits that Canadian mining giants are salivating over.

As citizens of Canada we should be outraged that our government is willing to ignore long standing international norms and indeed international law by violating the sovereignty of Venezuela (not to mention Haiti, Libya, Bolivia…).    Sovereignty is not a pretty thing.  It certainly does protect governments that implement policies we for good reason don’t like.   One also does not have to be a fan of the government of Nicolas Maduro to object to attempts to overthrow his government.   States will do things many in the “international community” find abhorrent. It is the right and indeed the duty of international actors to object and to put pressure on these governments to refrain from these policies by all legal means.   This is what the UN and OAS are supposed to be for.   International law however has one primary purpose: to prevent the scourge of war that always begins with the violation of a state’s sovereignty.    That the cure of humanitarian intervention can be worse that the disease it was meant to cure was well illustrated by the NATO intervention in Libya: to prevent a hypothetical violation of human rights in the city of Benghazi, the wealthiest state on the continent of Africa was reduced to it’s poorest, flooding Europe with refugees and North Africa with arms and militants and jumpstarting a trade in slaves and human smuggling.   Let’s not allow our government to be complicit in repeating this pattern with respect to Venezuela.


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