Amidst headlines dominated by the situation in Ukraine, this bit of news slipped by almost unnoticed at the end of February; Ben Rowswell replaced Paul Gibbard as Canadian ambassador to Venezuela, as mandated by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. But a quick look into the appointee’s background brings special significance to his promotion, especially as opposition protests escalate in Venezuela.
Described in 2010 as a “rising foreign service star” by the Toronto Star, Rowswell has served as Canada’s official diplomatic representative in a number of conspicuous places across the Middle East. From Kandahar, Afghanistan to Kabul and Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Rowswell has become an expert at representing Canada’s interests in the heat of conflict.
At the age of 22 he was baptized into the foreign service by fire, working in Mogadishu during the Somali Civil War of the early 1990s. He went on to work for the Canadian Embassy in Cairo from 1995-98.
A diplomat for the digital age, he held the title of “Director of Innovation” at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.
While overseeing the “democratic transitions” of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Egypt, the fledgling attaché specialized in the harnessing of social media for diplomatic missions, in order to interact directly with non-state actors, in effect bypassing the target nation’s government.
In 2011, Rowswell gave a fascinating TEDx talk at Hayward University in California that outlined his views about the power of social media to shape democracy. He focused on post-Murbarak Egypt, before Mohammed Morsi’s election.
He detailed how notions of race, ethnicity and class may be pushed aside when organizing through social media platforms. He theorized that the internet allows for “opensource democracy,” allowing individuals to exchange their ideas as equals.
But let’s look at that idea in the context of Venezuela, where the middle and upper classes are more likely to have regular access to the internet. Twitter and Facebook have been the choice tools of the opposition in recent months, both to organize protests and to call upon international support.
The Bolivarian Revolution itself was born 15 years ago upon massive social movements and since has experimented with many revolutionary forms of democratic participation. But theirs is a different concept of democracy than what Rowswell and other Western powers have in mind.
After the 2002 coup attempt and the mass mobilizations that restored Chavez to power, the cause of socialism was taken up with greater enthusiasm. Since its commence the Bolivarian government has created institutions that, while not directly expropriating capital, have challenged its long term prospects.
Nowadays workers’ cooperatives and collective property exist alongside corporate conglomerates and private investments. There exists a form of dual power in Venezuela, and within that balance, a gulf of classes widened by the shift in authority.
The Canadian government has made it clear that its interests lie outside the decades of organization led by the Venezuelan masses.
A motion that received unanimous consent from all parties in the House of Commons and sponsored by NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar effectively condemned the Venezuelan government’s attempts at dealing with recent protests.
The statement was approved by Conservatives and Liberals alike, including MP Jim Karygiannis who has been extremely critical of the Venezuelan government.
Rowswell also argued that social media can create transparency yet Venezuela’s opposition has provided ample evidence to the contrary. Many photos from Turkey, Ukraine, Brazil, and even Syria have flown around social networks, meant to stir up indignation at the treatment of protestors in Venezuela. During the telecast of the Oscars, the opposition took to Twitter to claim the ceremony had been censored. The truth was that the Oscars was aired on TNT in Venezuela, a satellite channel.
Canada, too, knows how to wage internet campaigns and will not be left behind. Within hours of Rowswell’s appointment, a new Embassy account popped up on Twitter. (https://twitter.com/CanEmbVenezuela) Adam Goldenberg, liberal partisan and former speechwriter for Michael Ignatieff, tweeted in response: “Congratulations, Ben! Excellent choice, Minister, for all sorts of reasons.” As always, Canada’s imperial foreign policy is a bipartisan affair.
There’s no smoking gun, however. This appointment isn’t proof positive that the Canadian government and the Venezuelan opposition are conspiring an attack against president Nicolas Maduro.
While violent coups carried out by a minority are far from being a thing of the past, Canadian policy planners understand that the transformation of the opposition into a mass movement would be a much more efficient way to protect their interests, with less international backlash.
Rowswell is the best man to encourage such a “democratic” counterrevolution, given his pedigree. He certainly knows how to interact with the angry middle classes on Twitter.
As protests continue, it would be wise to keep a close watch on the Canadian Embassy in Caracas.
Edited by Venezuelanalysis.com