The government of Hugo Chavez was correct last week when a representative said Ottawa supports "coup plotters" and "destabilizers" in Venezuela.
But it's not because Harper is of the "ultra right" as suggested. In fact, both Liberal and Conservative governments have tacitly supported the U.S. campaign to replace the government of Venezuela.
In April 2002 a military coup took Chavez prisoner and imposed an unelected government. While most Latin American leaders condemned the coup, Canadian diplomats who were working under the direction of a Liberal government were silent.
It was particularly hypocritical of Ottawa to accept the coup. Only a year earlier, during the Summit of the Americas in Québec City, Jean Chrétien's Liberals made a big show of the new Organization of American States (OAS) "democracy clause" that was supposed to commit the hemisphere to electoral democracy.
Eight months after the coup, the Venezuelan opposition renewed its campaign to oust Chavez by sabotaging the oil industry and closing their businesses. In the midst of the upheaval, Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham simply asked both sides to resume dialogue, never stating Canada's opposition to any government that gained power undemocratically. But, growing social reforms in Venezuela increased Ottawa's ire. While the NDP called on the Liberal government to invite Chavez for an official visit, the president was passed over in favour of the leader of a U.S.-funded opposition group.
In January 2005, Paul Martin's Liberals invited Maria Corina Machado to Ottawa. Machado was in charge of Súmate, an organization at the forefront of anti-Chavez political campaigns. Just prior to her invitation, in August 2004, Súmate led the unsuccessful campaign to recall Chavez through a referendum. Before that, Machado's name appeared on a list of people who endorsed the 2002 coup, for which she faced charges of treason. She denied signing the now-infamous "Carmona decree" that dissolved the National Assembly and Supreme Court and suspended the elected government, the Attorney General, Comptroller General, governors as well as mayors elected during Chavez's administration. It also annulled land reforms and increases in royalties paid by oil companies.
Canada also helped finance Súmate, giving the group $22,000 in 2005-06. Minister of International Cooperation José 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."
In October 2006 Canada sided with the U.S. in a diplomatic row with Venezuela over the Western Hemisphere's Security Council seat. The U.S. and Canada backed the notorious human rights violator Guatemala, while Venezuela was seen as a protest vote by developing countries fed up with U.S. policy. When Chavez was reelected with 63 percent of the vote two months later, 32 members of the OAS supported a resolution to congratulate him on the victory. Ottawa was the only nation to join Washington in opposing a message of congratulations for an election win monitored by the OAS.
Just after Chavez's reelection U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs, Thomas Shannon, called Canada "a country that can deliver messages that can resonate in ways that sometimes our messages don't for historical or psychological reasons." Seven months later, Harper toured South America, "to show [the region] that Canada functions and that it can be a better model than Venezuela," in the words of a high-level Foreign Affairs official. During the trip, Harper and his entourage made a number of comments critical of the Venezuelan government.
Last April Harper responded to a question regarding Venezuela by saying, "I don't take any of these rogue states lightly." A month earlier, the Prime Minister referred to the far right Colombian government as a valuable "ally" in a hemisphere full of "serious enemies and opponents."
The most recent example of Ottawa supporting Venezuela's opposition took place at the end of January. After meeting only with opposition figures during a trip to Venezuela Peter Kent, minister of state for the Americas, said: "Democratic space within Venezuela has been shrinking and in this election year, Canada is very concerned about the rights of all Venezuelans to participate in the democratic process."
(Venezuela's ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton Matos, responded: "I am talking of a Canada governed by an ultra right that closed its Parliament for various months to (evade) an investigation over the violation of human rights - I am talking about torture and assassinations - by its soldiers in Afghanistan.")
Ottawa' s antagonism towards Chavez is motivated by a desire to support Washington, but is also being driven by particular Canadian business interests. In 2001 the Venezuelan National Guard seized Vancouver-based Vanessa Ventures' gold project. According to the Globe and Mail, this prompted the company to spend "seven years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees on nearly a dozen legal proceedings before unsympathetic Venezuelan courts to claim more than $181-million it says it invested in the mining camp."
In early 2007 Venezuela forced private oil companies to become minority partners with the state oil company, prompting Calgary based Petro-Canada to sell its portion of an oil project. And, reported the National Post:"Gold Reserve Inc. has seen its share price get punished by the uncertainty surrounding mining projects in that country and the possibility that Hugo Chavez's government will take over their deposits."
But the move that received the most attention from the business press was the government's legal maneuvers over the Las Cristinas gold mine, Venezuela's largest gold deposit. The stock of Toronto-based Crystallex, which had the rights to operate Las Cristinas, plunged and in December 2008, Reuters reported: "Crystallex International filed a letter with Venezuela's government claiming that the country's denial of approvals to mine the Las Cristinas gold deposit goes against a treaty between Canada and Venezuela."
Despite his company not owning any properties in Venezuela, the head of Barrick Gold, Peter Munk, has repeatedly attacked Chavez. In a August 2007 letter to the Financial Times headlined "Stop Chavez' Demagoguery Before it is Too Late", he wrote: "Your editorial 'Chavez in Control' was way too benign a characterization of a dangerous dictator - the latest of a type who takes over a nation through the democratic process, and then perverts or abolishes it to perpetuate his own power … aren't we ignoring the lessons of history and forgetting that the dictators Hitler, Mugabe, Pol Pot and so on became heads of state by a democratic process? … autocratic demagogues in the Chavez mode get away with [it] until their countries become totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or Slobadan Milosevic's Serbia … Let us not give President Chavez a chance to do the same step-by- step transformation of Venezuela."
Munk, among Embassy magazine's "Top 50 People Influencing Canadian Foreign Policy", sees Venezuela's reforms as a threat to his profit-making possibilities and as an example that might be replicated elsewhere. It is a view likely held by most of Canada's foreign focused business community, especially in the resource sector.
Over the past two decades there has been an explosion in Canadian miners in the region. Canadian companies now control some 1,300 concessions in Latin America. These corporations have benefited from the privatization of state-run mining companies, opening the sector to foreign investment and reductions in royalty rates. Growing calls for increased state control over extractive industries are a major threat to Canadian miners. And these are almost always among the first reforms pushed by those resisting neoliberalism. Put simply, Canadian miners profit-making in the region is closely tied to maintaining and expanding 'free' market capitalism.
Home to the majority of the world's mining companies, as well as many oil and gas firms, Canadian capital is highly dependent on an extreme version of 'free' market capitalism. In light of this reality, is it a surprise that Ottawa -Liberal and Conservative governments alike - has worked to undermine the government in the region most actively resisting neoliberalism?
Yves Engler is the author of The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (available at turning.ca). His latest book is Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid. If you are interested in helping to organize an event as part of his book tour in March please contact: [email protected]