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Politics On Venezuela, middle-power global players could make a difference – even if it’s modest

It’s hard to solve a national crisis in South America with a meeting of foreign ministers thousand kilometres to the north. The Lima Group is a test of the kind of middle-power foreign policy the Trudeau government has been talking about for years.

This collection of countries trying to pressure Venezuela’s authoritarian president, Nicolas Maduro, to cede power includes many major Latin American countries and Canada – but not the United States. The group’s meeting in Ottawa on Monday was never going to push Mr. Maduro from office. He has clung to power while his country’s economy spiralled into crisis and millions took to the streets. A communiqué from Ottawa wasn’t going to make him cry uncle.

The question, though, is whether this kind of thing – the banding together of middle powers and smaller countries – can be more than words, and in this case, actually help nudge Venezuela to transition to democracy. Maybe it can, in a modest way.

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It is an example of the kind of middle-power initiative Justin Trudeau’s Liberals see as the wave of the future. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s big thesis is that the United States, notably since the election of President Donald Trump, seems to be taking a step back from its role as a global leader, so middle powers such as Canada will have to step up and band together to exert influence.

Canada has dabbled in some such initiatives. Mr. Trump questioned the global trading system, so Canada convened a group of like-minded countries to explore reforms to the World Trade Organization.

The case of Venezuela is a little different. Canada joined the Lima Group, which excluded the United States, because it wanted distance from the superpower’s approach – at least, it wanted to be seen as separate. But it’s still led by middle powers.

Monday’s confab not only provided an opportunity for Canada to broadcast that it disagrees with Mr. Trump’s suggestion that military intervention in Venezuela is “an option.” It brought together most of Venezuela’s biggest neighbours to take the same position in the Lima Group communiqué.

And then, after making sure their position is distinct from the United States, the 11 countries urged Venezuela’s military commanders to switch their allegiance from Mr. Maduro to Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old president of the National Assembly and self-declared interim president.

Both are statements. Opposing military intervention tweaks Washington’s nose, but also helps the Lima Group distance itself from Washington – and distances international support for Mr. Guaido from U.S. military action. The United States has a checkered history of intervention in Latin America. It is also the foil favoured by Mr. Maduro: He and predecessor Hugo Chavez have long used the threat of American imperialism to justify their regime. So when Mr. Trump and his Vice-President Mike Pence started saying military intervention is an option, it was a gift to Mr. Maduro.

But calling on military officers to switch sides? That’s no small thing. Mr. Maduro has already claimed Mr. Guaido is part of a U.S.-backed coup. But it was the next step for the Lima Group, formed in 2017 to respond to Venezuela’s crisis.

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There are two narratives competing in Venezuela, noted Ben Rowswell, Canada’s former ambassador to Venezuela and now president of the Canadian International Council, whether it is Mr. Maduro or the National Assembly, and hence Mr. Guaido, that is legitimate. International recognition of Mr. Guaido might be seen by Venezuelans as an endorsement of his legitimacy; some might have been skeptical when that came from the United States, but the Lima Group followed, and on Monday so did the European Union.

But of course, millions have protested and Mr. Maduro still isn’t stepping down. That Lima Group communiqué is a message to the people around him.

Mr. Rowswell suggested that the Lima Group could do some other things: It could start to detail plans to aid Venezuela economically during a transition. The country’s economy has spiralled into crisis in recent years, so a solid promise the misery will be alleviated could sway some. And, Mr. Rowswell suggested, they can start making plans to help some of Mr. Maduro’s senior military officers to leave the country under an amnesty – so they don’t feel they have to stick with the regime at all costs.

Those things won’t solve Venezuela’s crisis, but they may nudge change modestly. And that is a test for this kind of middle-power-ism.

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