Hugo Chavez was an extraordinary individual, a player on the hemispheric if not global stage. Unpredictable as he was charismatic, Mr. Chavez was the joker in the Latin American pack of cards. In other words, he was just the kind of leader who causes headaches for governments like Canada’s, both with his policies and his persona.
At the 2001 Summit of the Americas, the question was “What would Chavez do?” This was early in George W. Bush’s presidency and rioters were in the streets of Quebec City; things could have gone badly. But prime minister Jean Chrétien, an old hand at wrangling egos, mollified him by putting him next to Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who kept his Venezuelan counterpart under control.
That time, it worked. Things didn’t go as well for me as foreign minister at the 2004 Summit in Monterrey, Mexico, when I expressed Canadian policy critical of Mr. Chavez – while he was sitting next to me. He was surprisingly quiet for someone normally so verbose, but he looked at me with the fierceness of a man who had both instigated and survived coups d’état.
And so with his death, it might seem like an opportune time to push the “reset” button on Canada-Venezuelan relations. But that is unlikely, at least for a while.
For the moment, it is difficult to foresee any immediate change in the domestic or international policies of Venezuela that would bring about such a rapprochement, especially with no likely electoral change in the near future. To begin with, Canadians business in general will continue to be discouraged by years of the regime’s anti-business rhetoric and actions. And even if the opposition is elected, it will take a number of years to overcome the perceived problems in the judiciary or even for foreigners to feel safe on the mean streets of Caracas, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
In the international sphere, there is even less likelihood that the Canadian government would go out of its way to seek to establish closer ties, at least for a while. In recent years, Ottawa has signed free-trade agreements with many states – Colombia, Panama, Chile, in particular – that have no affinity for Mr. Chavez’s “Bolivarian” vision, exported by its commandante and endorsed by hemispheric outliers.
Canada has quite a bit on its plate working with these receptive jurisdictions without expending energy in trying to bring about a better relationship with Venezuela. That role is perhaps best left to Brazil, a neighbour and self-perceived hegemon, as Mr. Cardoso demonstrated in Quebec City.
In recent years, another powerful irritant has poisoned Venezuela’s hemispheric relations: its role as a host to Iran in the Americas.
In recent years, Mr. Chavez made a point of cultivating close relations with Iran as a part of his anti-Americanism and oil strategy to the point where it is alleged that Venezuela furnished passports to Hezbollah operatives. These actions have provoked a vigorous U.S. response, one manifestation of which is a recent House of Representatives bill, the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act – yet another extraterritorial extension of American legislative jurisdiction, and making specific reference to Canada and Mexico.
Canada’s present relations with Iran are at a low point in any event, but this is an unneeded complication in relations with both the United States and Venezuela.
Until this potentially explosive issue is resolved to the satisfaction of both Washington and Ottawa, it is hard to see why any Canadian government would seek to make serious overtures to Venezuela. Mr. Chavez is dead, but the joker he dealt us lives on.
Bill Graham was foreign minister of Canada from 2002 to 2004.