Canada wants Lima Group meeting to keep pressure on Maduro to step down
Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland speaks to media following a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
OTTAWA -- Canada and its Lima Group allies will use their Monday meeting in Ottawa to find new ways -- including financial -- to support the Venezuelan opposition and ease the refugee crisis in neighbouring Brazil and Colombia.
The agenda for the gathering of foreign ministers from more than a dozen of Canada's Western Hemisphere allies was still being finalized on Friday, in part because of the speed at which the Venezuelan crisis is unfolding.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will host the meeting two days after Saturday's scheduled national street protests in Venezuela aimed at pressing the country's socialist leader, Nicolas Maduro, to vacate the presidency.
Canada has already contributed $2.2 million for the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela that has forced three million people from their homes, sending ripples across the region.
Sources say Canada won't be adding to that fund because Maduro won't allow proper humanitarian access to the country.
And while they stress Monday's meeting is not a pledging conference, sources said the discussions will include looking at new political and financial ways to support the politician they see as the country's true interim president: parliamentary leader Juan Guaido.
One source framed a central question for the talks as: "How can we continue to pressure Maduro in such a way that he steps down to allow for a new election? What more can we be doing in terms of financial support but also general support?"
A possibility is to repurpose billions of dollars of overseas assets seized from the country's corrupt leaders to help countries coping with the influx of refugees and to back Guaido's new government.
That proposal comes from the Washington think-tank Inter-American Dialogue and the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.
"It's a way of holding individual members of the regime's feet to the fire," said Fen Hampson, head of CIGI's global security program.
Monday's meeting will also be focused on keeping the pressure on Maduro to vacate the Venezuelan presidency and turn it over to Guaido, whom the Lima Group, the United States and other democratic countries now call the South American country's legitimate leader. He was elected president of the Venezuelan National Assembly in December and claimed the presidency of the country on the grounds that Maduro's last election was illegitimate and the office is vacant.
The Ottawa talks will be aimed at charting "a path forward that ensures that the international spotlight remains on the opposition because we're at a turning point. The last thing that we want is the international attention for fade and for Maduro to be emboldened to hold on," said one source.
In recent days, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been personally invested with that issue in a series of phone calls with foreign leaders, including Ireland's and Italy's.
In his Thursday conversation with Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, Trudeau "emphasized the importance of the international community sending a strong, unified, and clear message" on the crisis in support of Guaido and the Venezuelan people, the Prime Minister's Office said.
Trudeau has also stayed in close contact with the leaders of Venezuela's neighbours, which are directly affected by the crisis, said Federico Hoyos, the Colombian ambassador to Canada.
"The strength of the Lima Group resides in the unity of our voices demanding democracy in Venezuela," said Hoyos.
The meeting comes at a time when the Trudeau government has been under siege domestically for how it conducts foreign policy. This has included the ongoing turmoil with China, which has imprisoned two Canadian following the RCMP's arrest of a Huawei executive on behalf of the U.S., unsuccessful efforts to get U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs lifted, and a high-profile rift with Saudi Arabia.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer cited those examples and others as evidence of the "debacle" Trudeau has made of Canadian foreign policy.
Canada's Lima Group allies don't share that view.
"Canada is an important country on the world stage, and its support and leadership have been critical to reinforce the Lima Group," said Hoyos.
Brazil's ambassador Denis Fontes de Souza Pinto said Canada has been playing a key role in the Lima Group since its formation in August 2017.
"The participation of Canada shows it not only has to do with Latin America; it's something that has to do with the American continent's values," he said.
The group has 14 members in North and South America, including Canada and Mexico, but excludes the United States. Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez have often painted the U.S. as a villain seeking to thwart Venezuelans' popular will.
Roland Paris, the University of Ottawa professor who was Trudeau's first foreign-policy adviser, said: "This will be a substantive meeting, but it can't hurt the government politically to showcase Canada's international leadership on Venezuela."