Stephen Harper long disdained Hugo Chavez as a retrograde socialist, but the death of the Venezuelan leader comes just as Ottawa was reaching out for the first time to the Chavistas.
Just over two weeks ago, Foreign Minister John Baird was in Latin America expecting to make an unprecedented visit to Venezuela to meet Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, the man expected to replace the populist president. That plan was derailed only by events moving faster than expected – the Venezuelans cancelled the trip when Mr. Chavez returned from cancer treatment in Cuba, for what were in the end his last days.
It was a near-miss in an effort to get ahead of a transition that Ottawa realized was coming in Venezuela. Now, with Mr. Chavez gone but the Chavistas still in charge, it appears the Harper Conservatives will renew efforts to re-engage with Venezuela – but that will be delayed several months as the country heads into elections for a new president.
“Canada looks forward to working with his successor and other leaders in the region to build a hemisphere that is more prosperous, secure, and democratic,” Mr. Harper said in a statement, in which he offered condolences to Venezuelans on the death of Mr. Chavez.
Although the two countries share a $1.3-billion trade, Canada had never had especially close relations with Venezuela. The last foreign minister to visit was Joe Clark in 1986.
Under Mr. Harper’s direction, the Canadian coolness continued as Mr. Chavez baited the U.S. and tried to forge alliances with other left-leaning governments in Latin America. In 2007, without directly mentioning Mr. Chavez, the Prime Minister alluded to his policies as “economic nationalism, political authoritarianism and class warfare.” His foreign and trade policies favoured closer ties to neighbours Colombia and Peru, in part because he saw them as free-market rivals to the politics of Mr. Chavez and his allies.
But the Harper government’s renewed interest in broadening trade and diplomatic ties in Latin America led them to look to look to the future in Venezuela.
As Mr. Chavez suffered a long bout with cancer, Mr. Harper’s government chose to reach out to the Chavistas – to try to meet figures like Mr. Maduro, Mr. Chavez’s designated successor, as well as some in Venezuela’s opposition. But Mr. Maduro is widely expected to wide a wave of sympathy to election as president, and Ottawa will find out if it can warm ties with the Chavistas now that Mr. Chavez is gone.