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Blackouts, gas bombs and gunplay: How the Canadian embassy is holding on in Venezuela

Blackouts, gas bombs and gunplay: How the Canadian embassy is holding on in Venezuela


The United States signed an accord yesterday that will allow for a U.S. ‘interests section’ in the Swiss embassy in Caracas, the same arrangement it has had at the Swiss embassy in Tehran for the past 40 years.

But the Canadians remain entrenched in their five-story embassy on the corner of Altamira Square, with no plans to go anywhere.

“I’m glad that Canada didn’t do the same thing as the U.S. because you need people on the ground in places like Venezuela to get a sense of what the citizens are saying on the ground,” said Ben Rowswell, the last person to serve as a full ambassador for Canada in Caracas.

“There’s a reason that the U.S. sometimes acts in foreign policy like it’s blind and deaf, and that’s because it actually ends up removing its eyes and ears from the places that matter the most, like Caracas.

“The core function of diplomacy is listening and that’s one thing our embassy excelled at. The embassy has probably had face-to-face conversations with tens of thousands of Venezuelans of every stripe over these past few years and that’s one of the reasons we’re so confident in our judgments of what Venezuelans really want.”

Live and let live

Canadian officials and their Venezuelan counterparts — both the ones who support current President Nicolás Maduro and those backing opposition leader Juan Guaido — have described a strange diplomatic equilibrium that allows Canada’s embassy to remain in Caracas despite government orders to leave, and also lets Maduro’s government retain five diplomatic properties in Canada, despite the fact that Ottawa doesn’t recognize it.

“I have an accreditation issued by the Government of Canada as a diplomat in this country,” Prof. Luis Acuna Cedeno told CBC News. The former graduate of the University of Western Ontario served as both a cabinet minister under President Hugo Chavez and as governor of Sucre state under Nicolas Maduro. Today, he retains control of Venezuela’s embassy in Sandy Hill, Ottawa, with the title of ‘charge d’affaires’.

“The diplomatic mission of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has its staff working at the embassy in the city of Ottawa, the general consulate of Montreal, the general consulate of Vancouver and the general consulate of Toronto. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela does not have any other diplomatic staff working in Canada. As it is already known, in December 2017, Canada decided to downgrade diplomatic relations with Venezuela to the level of Chargé d’Affaires.”

Meanwhile, the man Canada does recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate representative is unable to set foot in his country’s embassy or official residence. He’s also barred from becoming a diplomat in Canada because of his immigration status as a Canadian permanent resident.

Orlando Viera Blanco told CBC News he plans to renounce his permanent resident status. “We are in the process, just to respect the protocols, and to improve our final status as an ambassador. The Vienna Convention requires us not to be a citizen or a permanent resident as part of the process that we have to comply (with).”

Viera Blanco said he’s also unable to visit the nation he represents because he faces a criminal charge of treason for accepting the post of representative for the man Canada has recognized as Venezuela’s acting president, Juan Guaidó.

The unusual modus vivendi the parties described to CBC News appears to have endured because — for the moment — it works for all three parties.

Canada’s toleration of the presence of two rival representatives from Venezuela is a pragmatic quid pro quo for Venezuela’s tolerance of the Canadian diplomatic presence in Caracas.

“It’s a unique situation. It’s an unprecedented situation. When you have people from Canada working in Venezuela, you have to be prudent,” says Viera Blanco. Partly for that reason, he told CBC News, taking possession of Venezuela’s diplomatic properties in Canada is a “low priority.”

“We respect the uniqueness of that situation and that’s why we have to move forward with diplomacy, prudence and moderation that are required in this unique situation.”

The situation stands in sharp contrast to that of some of the other key players in the fight over Venezuela’s future who have been unable to maintain a diplomatic presence in Venezuela.

‘Get back, Satan!’

“I have decided to break all political and diplomatic relations with the fascist government of Colombia and all its ambassadors and consuls must leave Venezuela within 24 hours. Get out of here, oligarchy!”

With those words on February 23, Maduro announced the end of all ties with the country many Venezuelans refer to as their “sister nation.”

“You are the devil Ivan Duque, you’re the devil,” Maduro said, referring to the Colombian president. “And you’re going to dry up for interfering in Venezuela. Get back Satan, get out of here devil!”

For six weeks now, the border has been closed between two countries that were, for the first twelve years of their independence, a single nation.

Colombia and Venezuela have since engaged in a war of words that occasionally has spilled over into border clashes, pitting the Colombian military against shadowy paramilitary groups that Bogota considers to be protegés of the Maduro government.

Colombia also has lost the ability to help its citizens in Venezuela, where they are by far the largest group of foreign residents.

Bolivarian National Guard ride their motorcycles over Fransisco de Miranda Avenue, painted with the word “resistance” and the names of protesters killed by statwe forces in 2014. The Canadian embassy is at top right. (Tomas Bravo/REUTERS)

U.S. throws in the towel

Just hours after a State Department briefing on Venezuela that made no mention of closing the U.S. embassy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo surprised many with a late-night tweet from Texas in which he announced that Washington was pulling out the last of its diplomats.

Non-essential staff and family members had departed two months previously. On January 24, Maduro gave the U.S. embassy 72 hours to either withdraw its recognition of Guaido or withdraw its diplomats.

When it became clear that the U.S. did not intend to comply, Maduro issued a face-saving 30-day extension, which he renewed for another 30 days in February, ostensibly to allow for negotiations on setting up a U.S. interests section in another country’s embassy.

But those talks (if they happened) went nowhere, and the U.S. pulled the plug on the embassy just before midnight on March 11.

The U.S., like Canada, has urged its citizens to leave Venezuela and has given the country its highest-level travel warning.

Gas, blackouts and threats

Canada’s embassy has stayed open despite logistical difficulties — including prolonged city-wide blackouts caused by the collapse of Venezuela’s electricity network — by running diesel generators and stockpiling water.

Its location on Plaza Altamira has put it at the heart of numerous protests, some of which have ended in gunfire, injuries and deaths.

“The protesters themselves were never a problem,” said Rowswell. “But when the police forces would enter the square to try to clear it, that would create a situation of tension in the plaza.

“There were some times when there were particularly intense protests or repression and we would have to suspend some of our public-facing operation such as providing consular service for a day or two, but we would get right back into action very quickly.”

When Rowswell finished his term as ambassador, the Venezuelan government refused to allow him to be replaced, as it had been angered by Magnitsky Act sanctions brought against certain members of the Maduro regime. A more junior diplomat, Craig Kowalik, took over as charge d’affairs. He lasted for about six months before he learned from social media that he had just been declared persona non grata — along with the fully-accredited ambassador from Brazil.

As 2017 turned into 2018, Kowalik found himself briefly camping out at his parents’ house in Canada before taking on a new assignment in Colombia, where much of his work these days involves Venezuelan exiles and migrants.

Diplomats in Caracas have grown used to a steady stream of denunciations, including trips to the Venezuelan foreign ministry to receive protest notes.

In a typical statement on May 30, Venezuela’s foreign minister Jorge Arreaza suggested that Canada’s criticisms of the Maduro regime were prompted by its desire to maintain the NAFTA accord with Washington:

“It is blindingly obvious that the obsessive conduct of the government of Canada against Venezuela results from its humiliating subordination to the foreign policy of the racist and supremacist administration of Donald Trump. The facts suggest that this servile policy of the Canadian authorities is the product of the desperation of that government to avoid losing benefits and preferences in its commercial treaties with the United States.”

Ultimatum ignored

As well as surviving downgrades and expulsions, the Canadian embassy managed to ride out one ultimatum to close up shop by simply ignoring it.

On January 9, the Venezuelan government gave Canada 72 hours to retract a statement saying that Maduro, whose presidential term had ended that day, was no longer a legitimate president. If Canada did not retract, Venezuela would break off relations.

Canada did nothing.

On the Saturday the deadline was to expire, Venezuela’s foreign ministry announced that President Maduro had decided to extend the deadline for Canada (and fellow miscreant Paraguay) to the following Monday.

Again, Canada did nothing. It’s position on Monday was the same as on Friday, and remains the same today.

The Parauguayan embassy is closed and its diplomats are gone. Canada’s are still there.

‘Performing for the cameras’

“(Members of the Maduro regime) are aware of how isolated they are,” said Rowswell, “and they sometimes lash out in anger in ways that aren’t entirely thought through. And they’re sometimes performing for the cameras, and not engaged in real conversations. Often you’ll see them making a threat on television without ever having communicated with the embassy.

“My experience was you never knew who they were going to pick on. You’d wake up one day and it would be the Italians, the next day it would be the Spanish, almost every day (it) would be the United States, and then regularly every single Latin American country would be singled out for abuse.

“It got to the point there was no observable pattern, just whoever Maduro was mad at from one day to the next.”

On March 4, Guaido returned to Caracas after a tour of South American capitals, during which he was fêted by the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia as the legitimate president of Venezuela.

Fearing that he would be arrested, diplomats from several countries, including Canada, went to the airport to greet him. Venezuela responded by giving German Ambassador Daniel Kriener 48 hours to leave the country, which he did.

Again, the Canadians escaped a sanction.

Rowswell said he hopes this unusual situation can be maintained, even though it rests on shaky diplomatic ground.

“Once you remove Canadian diplomats, over time the kind of granular feel we have for what is really happening on the ground would diminish. And that’s where I feel the Americans are really making a big mistake by losing their eyes and ears on the ground.”





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Pence, Freeland to address Venezuela crisis as Lima Group meets in Colombia

Pence, Freeland to address Venezuela crisis as Lima Group meets in Colombia


U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence is set to announce “concrete steps” and “clear actions” to address the Venezuela crisis when he meets on Monday with regional leaders in Bogota, Colombia, a senior U.S. administration official said.

The official declined to comment on what the new measures would entail ahead of Pence’s speech, to be delivered to a summit of the Lima Group around 10:30 a.m. ET after he meets with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who has been instrumental in the formation and progress of the Lima Group, which includes 13 Latin American countries, will attend in Bogota.

“For the past two years, the world has watched with great concern as Venezuela, under Nicolas Maduro’s rule, has descended into chaos,” Freeland said in a statement late ast week. “Throughout all of this, the international community has been vocal in standing up for the rights of Venezuelans.

“Monday’s meeting of the Lima Group will build on the important work that Canada is doing with its partners in the Lima Group to support the people of Venezuela in their fight for freedom and democracy.”

As the group met in Ottawa earlier this month, Canada pledged $53 million in humanitarian aid and development support, focused on the needs of Venezuelans who have fled the country.

Over 3 million have fled country

On Friday, UN refugee and migration agencies said some 3.4 million people have now fled Venezuela, up from a November estimate of three million.

The UNCHR and the International Organization for Migration said Colombia hosts the highest number of Venezuela emigrants — more than 1.1 million — followed by Peru with 506,000 and Chile with 288,000. Brazil has taken in 96,000 Venezuelans.

The meeting Monday comes after convoys of aid were blocked at the Venezuelan border by forces and gangs loyal to  Maduro. Separate clashes between protesters and Venezuelan troops took place near the country’s border with Colombia and Brazil, with dozens injured and at least four reported killed.

“Canada is deeply concerned by the acts of violence allegedly perpetrated by the Maduro regime, designed to block the entry of relief items from neighbouring countries,” Canada’s Foreign Ministry said Friday. “Canada calls for these unacceptable attacks to be investigated and for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.”

Canada, the United States and most other Western nations no longer recognize Maduro as the country’s leader.

U.S. President Donald Trump and other Western leaders have recognized Guaido, the head of Venezuela’s national assembly, as interim president. The official said Washington wants to find ways to empower him. In recent weeks, Trump has said all options were on the table for supporting Guaido and has declined to rule out the use of military force.

Watch: Freeland speaks to CBC on Feb. 4 about Venezuela crisis

‘I think what history shows is once a leader of an authoritarian regime discovers there are no alternatives, that is when you see democracy restored,’ says Freeland. 14:13

Maduro retains the backing of both Russia and China. 

Beijing has lent more than $50 billion to Venezuela through oil-for-loan agreements over the past decade, securing energy supplies for its fast-growing economy.

“We again call on the government and opposition in Venezuela to seek a political resolution under the framework of the constitution and law, and call on the international community to do more that really benefits Venezuela’s stability, economic development and improvement in livelihoods,” China’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday.

China “hopes the international community can provide constructive help to Venezuela under the precondition of respecting Venezuela’s sovereignty,” it added.





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Peaceful transition 'absolutely' possible in Venezuela says Freeland

Peaceful transition ‘absolutely’ possible in Venezuela says Freeland


Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said a peaceful transition of power is “absolutely” possible in Venezuela, even as embattled President Nicolas Maduro digs in his heels and opposition leaders in Venezuela refuse to rule out military intervention.

“I think that peaceful transition is absolutely possible. It is not only possible, it is essential and that is what Canada and the Lima Group are working for,” Freeland said in an interview with CBC News Network’s Power & Politics.

Freeland’s comments come after the Lima Group concluded a day-long emergency summit in Ottawa by proclaiming Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido a full member of the multi-nation group while reiterating its call for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

The group also called on the Venezuelan national armed forces to back Guaido.

Despite a couple of high-profile defections, Venezuela’s national armed forces have largely, to date, continued to back Maduro.

The military’s continued backing of Maduro doesn’t seem to shake Freeland’s conviction that a peaceful resolution is possible.

“What history shows, is once a leader of an authoritarian regime discovers that there are no alternatives, that is when you see the regime fracturing and that is when you see democracy restored and I am absolutely confident that is what will happen in Venezuela,” Freeland told host Vassy Kapelos when asked what gives her hope a peaceful transition is possible.

The Lima Group’s opposition to military intervention stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric coming both from the U.S. and from opposition leaders in Venezuela.

In a CBS interview that aired Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump said American military intervention is still an option on the table.

And today in Ottawa, Venezuelan opposition representative Julio Borges refused to rule out military intervention, saying he is “pro any measure that could bring Venezuela liberty.”

Former Canadian Ambassador to Venezuela Ben Rowswell highlighted Canada’s opposition to military intervention as particularly important.

“Transitions to democracy cannot be made at the barrel of a gun. They are done by the will of the citizens of the country, free from any kind of threat and free to make their own choices, not choices made by foreign soldiers,” Rowswell told Kapelos.

“I think the [Canadian] government’s shown some real backbone in their approach to Venezuela,” said Rowswell. “This is the first time, and I was a diplomat for 25 years — the first time that I’ve seen Canada openly disagree with the United States on a major issue in Latin America.”

On what may break the current stalemate, Rowswell said that Maduro is a “bitter ender.”

“He is likely to stay in power as long as he possibly can. So it really will depend on others in Maduro’s administration and in the security forces abandoning him and not he, himself, deciding to run off into the sunset,” said Rowswell.

Watch Vassy Kapelos’ full interview with Chrystia Freeland
‘I think what history shows is once a leader of an authoritarian regime discovers there are no alternatives, that is when you see democracy restored,’ says Freeland. 14:13





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