All avenues for peace in Venezuela must be explored, Freeland says
OTTAWA -- Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will head to Cuba next week for more talks with her counterpart there on the situation in Venezuela.
Freeland made the announcement following a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Ottawa on Thursday, where the deepening political and economic crisis in the South American country was on the agenda.
Canada and the U.S. are seeking the end of a months-long democratic deadlock in the country that revolves around who rightfully occupies the presidency; incumbent Nicolas Maduro's 2018 victory was dismissed by many countries as illegitimate, with his rival Juan Guaido accepted as the actual victor.
The stalemate has seen the economy of Venezuela plunge further off a cliff, with widespread food and drug shortages among the issues prompting millions of Venezuelans to flee to neighbouring countries.
How best to resolve the crisis is an ongoing point of debate between Canada and the U.S., with the potential role of Cuba as one irritant. The Trump administration views Cuba as a negative influence, while Canada believes the country could help engineer a solution that would see a peaceful transition to full democracy.
Another point of differentiation is the role of sanctions.
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump froze all Venezuelan government assets in his country, a massive ratcheting up of economic pressure.
Freeland suggested Thursday that Canada was not going to follow suit and tighten its own sanctions regime. She said Canada is instead continuing its work with the Lima Group, a coalition of regional countries that have been working together since 2017 to support Guaido.
"We have very strong sanctions in place against the Maduro regime and we also believe that it is important to explore all possible paths to a resolution of the situation," Freeland said.
Her upcoming trip to Cuba is being made with that in mind, Freeland said.
Cuba is not a member of the Lima Group, and still accepts Maduro's government. Canada has been trying to pressure Cuba to come around for the last several months, with next week's visit the latest in a series of discussions on the subject.
While Trump may consider Cuba a bad influence, his administration confirmed this week that it too has been talking to the Maduro regime in a bid to find a way to transition him out of power.
Pompeo said the talks do not signal a shift in U.S. policy.
"There cannot be free and fair elections so long as Maduro is on the same ballot and we continue to work toward achieving that end on behalf of the Venezuelan people."
A scathing report by the UN Human Rights Commission released last month accused the Maduro regime of using torture tactics to silence its critics, and documented numerous violations of human, civil and social rights.
The situation has forced a massive migration of Venezuelans into neighbouring countries, prompting calls for increased humanitarian support and, if necessary, refugee resettlement.
This week, Canada made it easier for Venezuelans to travel here, or extend their stays, by agreeing to accept expired passports as documentation.
The most recent data suggests visa application numbers from Venezuelans have been going down. In 2018, there were an average of 709 temporary resident visa applications per month, while so far this year it's closer to 450. In 2018, 56 per cent of all temporary visa applications were rejected. So far this year, the rejection rate hovers at 46 per cent.
Higher numbers of refugee claims from Venezuelans are getting accepted. In all of 2018, 525 claims were accepted and 159 turned away. Between January to June of this year, 820 claims were accepted and 95 turned down.