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Opinion How Canada almost saved Venezuela – until Washington crashed the party

Venezuela is one place where Canada has done the right thing.

When Venezuelans began to rise against their increasingly dictatorial president, Nicolas Maduro, Ottawa took the considerable risk of providing outspoken support to the democratic opposition.

In 2017, Canada played a key role in organizing the Lima Group – a bloc of 14 Latin American and Caribbean countries that has pressed for the restoration of democracy and the end of atrocities in Caracas – and in urging that group to isolate and sanction the Maduro regime.

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When Mr. Maduro’s dictatorship provoked a grotesque humanitarian crisis, with Venezuelans starving and millions of refugees flooding neighbouring countries, Canada was a leader in providing material aid and behind-the-scenes backing to the elected opposition. And on Jan. 23, when Venezuela’s fairly elected legislature announced that under the terms of their constitution, their representative, Juan Guaido, had become the country’s legitimate leader, the federal government led the way in recognizing him.

But Venezuela is also a place where Canada’s efforts could be rendered useless simply because one man walked into the room, late to the party, and began shouting his support.

The abrupt entry of Donald Trump and his administration into Venezuela’s hopeful moment has an effect similar to Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, in which the very act of observing changes the nature of the thing being observed. Washington’s ham-fisted embrace of Mr. Guaido and his movement has made Venezuela’s hopeful, progressive moment – and the growing circle of democratic countries that helped bring that moment about – look to many observers like something else entirely.

Too many figures who ought to know better, including MPs in Canada and Britain, now seem to believe that this is yet another case of Washington pushing a U.S.-friendly right-wing strongman into power against the will of a poor country’s people – something that certainly has occurred more than a few times in history.

This time, nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr. Guaido, 35, is a social democrat, with a lifelong history of community work on the democratic left. He is a member of Socialist International, whose key members include Britain’s Labour Party, the Democratic Socialists of America – the organization behind Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – and included Canada’s New Democrats until 2018, when the NDP decided to dissociate themselves from the word “socialist.” His political biography is a story of community organizing and progressive politics from his early student activism through to his transformative role – after things turned dark in 2017 – in organizing a nationwide network of open-air town-hall meetings to bring the voices of ordinary Venezuelans into the democratic process.

His party, Popular Will, was created by the Venezuelan democratic left in 2009 to protest the increasingly autocratic and economically destructive rule of Hugo Chavez. Venezuelan MPs felt he had betrayed their principles by smashing labour unions and nationalizing the economy and the currency, causing the middle class to collapse and poverty to soar. The party led the resistance when Mr. Maduro seized power following the death of Mr. Chavez in 2013 and imposed a de facto dictatorship.

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This is one of the paradoxes of Venezuelan politics: It is not a country divided between left and right, but predominantly between a social-democratic, economically liberal left and an autocratic, ultranationalist left in the Soviet mould. The word “progressive” never fit Mr. Chavez; one of his first acts as president was to respond to an oil workers’ strike by firing all 19,000 employees, disbanding their union and replacing them with regime loyalists.

Nor could Mr. Guaido’s movement be called “U.S.-backed.” While Mr. Trump has periodically denounced the Maduro dictatorship in his highly selective shopping list of evil regimes, and while he has shockingly suggested a military invasion of the country on several occasions, the United States has played little role in bolstering these democratic movements. In fact, it has done them considerable damage.

As Ben Rowswell, who was Canada’s ambassador to Venezuela until 2017, wrote in this paper on Monday, Mr. Trump’s gunboat diplomacy is offensive to Canadians and anyone who understands that “foreign military intervention is a violation of popular sovereignty, not a means to uphold it.”

Worse, some of the more unsavoury figures in Mr. Trump’s circle, such as his national-security adviser John Bolton, have suggested openly that the end of Mr. Maduro might be profitable for the U.S. oil industry. Mr. Maduro could not have devised a better strategy to ensure his hold on power: Now he can claim to be the last bulwark against the Yankee invasion.

On Feb. 4, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will host an Ottawa meeting of the 14 Lima Group countries. It will be both a crucial effort to build support for positive change in a country that sorely needs it, and yet another effort by the rest of the world’s democracies to work around the destructive impediment currently perched in Washington.

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