Quiet Canadian diplomacy helped Guaido’s anti-Maduro movement in Venezuela

Juan Guaido made a defiant pronouncement against President Nicolas Maduro

The politician Canada and its allies recognizes as Venezuela’s real leader stood in a Caracas plaza Friday and exhorted his supporters to “stay the course” if he winds up behind bars.

Juan Guaido’s defiant pronouncement against President Nicolas Maduro — whom Canada has branded a dictator who stole an election — marked the latest dramatic development in Venezuela’s political crisis. It followed Guaido’s decision two days earlier to declare himself his country’s interim leader, two weeks after Maduro’s contested inauguration.

But emboldening Venezuela’s opposition has been a labour of months, The Canadian Press has learned. Canadian diplomats in Caracas, with their Latin American counterparts, worked to get the country’s opposition parties to coalesce behind the one person who emerged strong enough to stand against Maduro: 35-year-old Guaido.

The turning point came Jan. 4 when the Lima Group — the bloc that includes Canada and more than a dozen Latin American countries — rejected the legitimacy of Maduro’s May 2018 election victory and his looming Jan. 10 inauguration, while recognizing the “legitimately elected” National Assembly, sources say.

“They were really looking for international support of some kind, to be able to hold onto a reason as to why they should unite, and push out somebody like Juan Guaido,” said one source.

The Canadian Press interviewed senior Canadian government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the crisis in Venezuela. They detailed Canada’s role in aiding democratic forces to rescue the once oil-rich country from the economic and political spiral that has forced three million Venezuelans from their homes.

Canada anticipated this week’s developments because its diplomats have been keeping in close contact with Guaido and other opposition figures in Venezuela. “We listen to them. We listen to the diaspora in Canada and elsewhere in the world, and we do what we can,” said one source.

The quiet Canadian diplomacy was conducted in tandem with Lima Group allies such as Chile, Peru, Colombia and Brazil. It was part of a Canadian diplomatic tradition that included efforts in the 1980s to shield Chilean dissidents fighting the Pinochet dictatorship.

READ MORE: Dueling Venezuela leaders dig in defending presidency claims

And in 2000, foreign-affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy led a multilateral mission to Peru that ousted strongman Alberto Fujimori, said Canada’s former ambassador to Venezuela Ben Rowswell.

“The tradition here is that Canada believes in the principles of human rights and democracy and takes pragmatic measures on the ground to unblock political situations,” said Rowswell.

Rowswell said he drew on that tradition while he was in Venezuela, hosting a high-profile award party at the Canadian Embassy to honour a local civil-society leader. The annual gathering sent a message that the world was watching pro-democracy efforts in the face of Maduro’s growing authoritarianism.

After Rowswell’s 2017 departure, the Lima Group was born and Canada began working within that coalition — which does not include the United States — to further human rights and democracy in the hemisphere.

Maduro’s May 20, 2018 election victory galvanized the Lima Group’s efforts. The group denounced the vote as illegitimate and downgraded diplomatic relations.

The diplomats who remained focused on building bridges with a fractured opposition that was as much at odds with itself as it was with Maduro.

In a November report, the International Crisis Group documented the divisions and urged the groups to set aside their “personal and political rivalries.”

The top contenders to lead the opposition were long-time leaders Leopold Lopez and Julio Borges, but there were problems with both. Lopez has been under house arrest since 2014, while Borges is living in exile.

Borges put forth Guaido as a contender, said one source.

Guaido made a clandestine trip to Washington in mid-December to brief U.S. officials on his strategy for dealing with Maduro’s Jan. 10 inauguration. He secretly crossed his country’s border with Colombia so Venezuelan immigration officials wouldn’t know he’d left and prevent his return.

As talks among Venezuelan opposition factions progressed, one source said, they began to set aside their differences. A key realization set in: “This is not about us. This is about the country.”

The source said the opposition groups deserve full credit for getting to that point. But it helped that Canadian diplomats “could facilitate conversations with people that were out of the country and inside the country” with other foreign diplomats.

On Jan. 5, Guaido assumed the presidency of the National Assembly, which the Lima Group regards as “the only remaining democratically elected institution in the country.”

Four days later, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland telephoned Guaido to “congratulate him on becoming president of the National Assembly and his work on uniting the opposition,” said another source.

The next day, Maduro was sworn in as president with support of countries such as Cuba, Russia and China; Freeland said “the Maduro regime is now fully entrenched as a dictatorship.”

On Wednesday, after Guaido declared himself to be the interim president, Venezuelans took to the streets in protests across the country. “It’s an important day for Venezuela,” Freeland said in Davos, Switzerland.

On Friday, Maduro told a news conference he’d be willing to talk to the opposition to settle the question of who leads the country, but he defended his presidency. He also called Guaido’s declaration “a desperate act” backed by the U.S.

Canadian officials said that while U.S. leaders such as President Donald Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have also denounced Maduro, there has been no direct co-ordination between the Lima Group and Washington.

As for this week’s rallies, the Venezuelans have full ownership of those.

“It was completely done by the opposition and their people on the ground in Venezuela,” said one official. “We couldn’t have helped them get to this point … if they weren’t willing and really putting their necks out.”

— with files from the Associated Press

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

LETTER: Slow down for wildlife, please

Langley letter writer pleads with drivers to drive with caution through new areas of development

Aldergrove shop owners make downtown more inviting

Business owners rejuvenate storefronts and invite redevelopment of the town’s core

Langley kids camp featured visiting Seawolves rugby players

Kids ages four to 12 could take part in a rugby camp that included visiting professional players.

True grit: Langley U18 wins bronze at soccer championships

‘I’ve never met a group this tough,’ coach said

LETTER: How do you define heritage in Fort Langley

A letter writer speaks out against demolition of several buildings in the ‘birthplace of B.C.’

‘Bad choices make good stories’: Margaret Trudeau brings her show to Just for Laughs

Trudeau says over the decades she has been suicidal, manic, depressed

UPDATE: Youth seen with gun at Nanaimo mall, suspect now in custody

Woodgrove Centre shut down during police incident

B.C. man dies from rabies after contact with Vancouver Island bat

Last known case of human rabies in B.C. was 16 years ago

Crown recommends up to two-year jail term for former Bountiful leader

Crown says sentence range should be 18 months to two years for Bountiful child removal case

B.C.-wide police efforts identify Vancouver Island robbery suspect

Warrant issued for arrest of North Vancouver man for TD Bank robbery

VIDEO: Wolf spotted swimming ashore on northern Vancouver Island

Island wolf population estimated at under 150 in 2008, says VI-Wilds

Diversity a Canadian strength, Trudeau says of Trump tweets at congresswomen

Trudeau avoided using Trump’s name when he was asked about the president’s Twitter comments

B.C. couple bring son home from Nigeria after long adoption delay

Kim and Clark Moran of Abbotsford spent almost a year waiting to finalize adoption of Ayo, 3

Garneau ‘disappointed’ in airlines’ move against new passenger bill of rights

New rules codified compensation for lost luggage, overbooked flights

Most Read