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Politics Former Canadian envoy to Venezuela recounts human cost of crisis

Venezuelans leaving their country through the Simon Bolivar international bridge in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, on the border with Colombia, on Feb. 21, 2019.

Rodrigo Abd/The Associated Press

Ben Rowswell chokes back tears as he describes the human cost of the Venezuelan crisis he witnessed while serving as Canada’s ambassador to the South American country.

“The handyman at the embassy had a daughter who was born prematurely and there wasn’t enough medical supplies to keep her in incubation and she died at five weeks,” an emotional Mr. Rowswell said in an interview Thursday.

Mr. Rowswell, Canada’s top envoy in Caracas from 2014 to 2017, says he and his colleagues would constantly hear heartbreaking stories of suffering from Venezuelans.

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The former Canadian diplomat – now the President of the Canadian International Council – spoke to The Globe and Mail following an appearance at the Senate foreign affairs committee Thursday. The committee’s study comes at a pivotal time in Venezuela, as Socialist President Nicolas Maduro refuses to step down amid a challenge from opposition leader Juan Guaido, who swore himself in as interim president in January.

Mr. Guaido, backed by dozens of countries including Canada and the United States, is poised for a showdown with Mr. Maduro’s regime on Saturday when an opposition convoy will attempt to bring aid into Venezuela through the border with Colombia. Mr. Maduro, who has a long-term policy of refusing foreign aid, closed the border with Brazil Thursday and said he is also considering closing the border with Colombia, where tons of U.S. and Colombian aid is sitting in warehouses ready to deliver to Venezuelans. Brazil responded by saying it is going ahead with a humanitarian airlift; the aid will be stockpiled in a border town until trucks can be sent to pick it up.

Facing an annual inflation rate of more than one million per cent, Venezuelans are struggling with widespread shortages of food and medicine. Mr. Rowswell said the hunger concerns were obvious during his time as ambassador, especially when the embassy hosted receptions with locals in attendance.

“People would gather around the kitchen and as the waiters would come with their plates of little crudités, they literally would pounce on the food,” Mr. Rowswell said.

There are concerns the desperately-needed humanitarian aid will be politicized.

Speaking to the committee Thursday, Michael Camilleri of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank said Mr. Guaido and his supporters see this weekend’s attempt to bring aid into Venezuela as a win against the Maduro regime, regardless of whether it actually gets into the country.

“If they manage to bring aid into the country, they will help to feed and provide medicine to needy Venezuelans," Mr. Camilleri said.

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“If Maduro is successful in blocking the aid, the reality of his cruelty and insensitivity to the plight of his own people will be even clearer.”

Canada recently announced $53-million in aid for Venezuelans affected by the crisis, but the majority of the money will go to non-governmental organizations in bordering countries, such as Brazil and Colombia, where millions of Venezuelans have fled. Given how difficult it is to deliver aid in Venezuela, only $2.5-million to $2.6-million is actually destined for organizations inside the country.

Canada has played a leading role in the Lima Group, a regional bloc working to find a peaceful resolution to the Venezuelan crisis. The alliance will meet in Bogota, Colombia, on Monday, where U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence will join discussions on the crisis (the U.S. is not a member of the Lima Group). Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will also attend.

As the international community keeps a close eye on Venezuela, one thing is clear to Mr. Rowswell after spending more than three years in the country: “Maduro’s time is up.”

"He’s not accepted by his own population any more and there’s very real human consequences for him staying in power.”

With files from Reuters

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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Ben Rowswell was on leave from the Canadian foreign service. Mr. Rowswell has left the Canadian foreign service and is no longer a diplomat.
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