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Recognition and little else

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Issue: 40 Section: Foreign Policy Geography: Latin America Venezuela Topics: diplomacy, UN

October 20, 2006

Recognition and little else

Canada's Anti-Venezuela Diplomacy

by Yves Engler

Hugo_web.jpg
Venezuela is vying for a seat on the UN Security Council. photo: UN
Since Venezuela elected a government led by Hugo Chavez in 1998, the South American country has frequently been on the receiving end of US-backed attempts to destabilize its government. Some say Canada has tacitly or openly supported the US campaign to replace the government of Venezuela.

In January of 2005, Foreign Affairs officials invited Maria Corina Machado to Ottawa. "While the Government of Canada recognizes the legitimacy of the democratically elected government of Venezuela," the invitation explained, "Súmate's visit to Canada will provide a useful opportunity to hear about the human rights situation in Venezuela from a different perspective."

Why was it necessary to note Canada's recognition of Venezuela's government? Machado is the head of Súmate, an organization that is nominally an NGO, but has been at the forefront of anti-Chavez political campaigns. The NDP has called on the government to invite Chavez for an official visit, but the president was passed over in favour of the leader of the US-funded opposition group.

Súmate was most recently at the head of an unsuccessful campaign to recall Chavez through a referendum. Before that, however, Machado's name appeared on a list of people endorsing a 2002 military coup that took Chavez prisoner and imposed a new, unelected government in Venezuela. The coup only lasted two days, before popular demonstrations and a split within the army forced the return of the elected government. But, that proved time enough to incur strong condemnation of the coup frommost Latin American and Caribbean countries -- and for the US to announce its recognition of the short-lived government. Canadian diplomats were silent.

Now, Machado faces charges of treason; if convicted, she could spend as long as 28 years in prison for her involvement in the coup. She denies signing the now-infamous Carmona Decree, which suspended the elected government, and annulled land reforms and increases in royalties paid by oil companies passed by the Chavez-led government. Machado now claims she only visited the presidential palace during the coup and entered her name on a sign-in sheet.

Súmate receives as much as six per cent of its funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, an arm's-length satellite of the US State Department and USAID.

Canada has also supported Súmate.

According to disclosures made in response to a question by NDP Foreign Affairs critic Alexa Mcdonnough, Canada gave Súmate $22,000 in 2005-06. Minister of International Co-operation Jose 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."

After meeting with NGOs, officials and members of Parliament in Canada, Machado went south, where she was granted an hour-long meeting with George W. Bush and met with other officials and NGOs.

Canada has also taken sides in the diplomatic row between the US and Venezuela over the Western Hemisphere Security Council seat vacated by Argentina. The US is backing Guatemala, while Venezuela is seen as a protest vote by developing countries fed up with US policy.

Some observers have called the US backing of Guatemala a bizarre choice, given the country's dismal human rights record. Before voting began on October 16, 90 NGOs from Guatemala sent a letter to members of the UN General Assembly opposing Guatemala's candidacy.

"Guatemala has allowed, and occasionally has contributed to, the deterioration of the situation of human rights and the proliferation of violence, again making these issues a matter of profound concern for the international community," the letter read.

A second letter, signed by Guatemalan human rights groups and two hundred prominent figures, explained that "little has been done to combat impunity and strengthen the judicial system to prevent the reoccurrence of genocide, crimes against humanity and serious human rights violations carried out during the conflict."

US diplomats have been pushing other countries hard to vote for Guatemala. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, for example, announced in early October that Chile would vote for Venezuela. After pressure from Washington, Chile backed off, deciding to abstain in the charged Security Council vote. The Los Angeles Times reported that the US had sold fighter jets to Chile, but Chilean pilots "will not be trained to fly them if the government supports Venezuela's bid." Evidence points to similar diplomatic pressure in other countries that might consider voting for Venezuela.

In the face of this pressure, many governments have continued to support Venezuela. The 15-member Caribbean Community, for example, has thrown its support and 14 General Assembly votes to Venezuela.

What would a Venezuelan Security Council seat mean? According to Venezuela's UN ambassador, it would give impoverished nations "an independent voice needed on the Security Council to fight against the power of money."

While Venezuela would not be able to veto any resolutions, it would have an effective platform from which to criticize US interventions in places like Iran, Iraq, Korea and Israel. Given the myriad of double standards enshrined in US foreign policy on human rights standards, war crimes, possession and use of weapons of mass destruction and violations of sovereignty, Venezuelan diplomats would not lack opportunities to embarrass the US.

By contrast, no observers are suggesting that Guatemala would be a critical voice. Given a lack of awareness of Canadian diplomacy inside Canada, and taking into account American pressure, that makes the small Central American country a safer place for Canada to place its support, for the moment.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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