Canada vs. Venezuela: The Murky Background

Following the closed-door, Feb. 4th meeting of the Lima Group in Ottawa, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland was holding a press conference to issue “the Ottawa Declaration for Venezuela” when suddenly protestors swarmed in front of her podium, unfurled a banner and began chanting “Hands off Venezuela!”
As security guards removed the protestors, Freeland deftly moved off-script to say that the Lima Group’s plans for Venezuela would uphold “the kind of democracy which political protestors in Canada do enjoy and I’m sad to say that political protestors in Venezuela do not.”

It was a bizarre statement for a variety of reasons – including the recent RCMP arrests of 14 peaceful land and water-protectors in Indigenous territory in B.C. – but especially because Freeland’s words coincided (but conflicted) with current mainstream media claims of massive protest marches taking place in Venezuela against president Nicolas Maduro and in favour of opposition figure Juan Guaido, who emerged from obscurity to declare himself interim president on January 23.

Canada’s “Liberal Hawk”

In Canada, Freeland has become known for such hyperbole. For example, in April 2018 when Canada expelled four Russian diplomats, Freeland said that the decision resulted in part from Russia’s attempts “to interfere in our democracy.” But as the Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom has stated, “Moscow’s sin then was to publicize the uncontested fact – also reported in the Star and Globe and Mail – that Freeland’s maternal grandfather had been a Nazi collaborator during the Second World War.” [1]
Adamantly anti-Russia, Freeland has become the Trudeau government’s “most articulate liberal hawk,” even declaring that Canadians must be prepared to go to war as the New Cold War heats up. [2]

At the Feb. 4th press conference, Freeland’s hyperbole neatly meshed with hypocrisy when she stated that “she opposed a coup but wanted the Venezuelan military to depose current president [Nicolas] Maduro and install the unelected U.S. dauphin, Juan Guaido.” [3]
Of course, some other Lima Group members have their own hypocrisy to answer for.

When it came to signing the Ottawa communiqué, Guayana and St. Lucia refused to sign, as did Mexico, which did not attend the February 4th meeting and has dropped out of the Lima Group. So that left 11 members – Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru – who signed the Ottawa Declaration.

As professors John Kirk and Stephen Kimber have noted, some of these members “are being willfully hypocritical in their moralizing … Guatemala’s President, Jimmy Morales, dismantled a United Nations anti-corruption group and barred its head from entering the country. Honduras’ President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, took power in 2014 after a dubious election and violent crackdown on dissent, then ignored his country’s constitution to win re-election in 2017. Brazil’s new President, Jair Bolsonaro, has not only publicly attacked women, gay people, immigrants and people of colour, he has also expressed support for torture and his country’s military dictatorship. Colombia has witnessed the execution of 120 human-rights leaders in the past two years. Is Ms. Freeland promoting democracy in those countries? And what does it say about Canada that these are our fellow travellers?” [4]

So what does the Ottawa communiqué from the Lima Group call for? It primarily calls (1) for a rejection of the United Nations stance demanding negotiations between Maduro and Guaido; (2) for all economic sanctions against Venezuela to remain in place until Maduro leaves the presidency; and (3) for Venezuela’s armed forces to mutiny against Maduro and support Juan Guaido. As the Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom stated, “In particular [the Lima Group signatories] urged the military to stand aside at the borders and allow ‘humanitarian assistance’ into Venezuela.” [5]

This last demand is a clever tactic that puts Maduro in a lose-lose position: either accept a Trojan Horse “humanitarian corridor” (operated by the U.S. and Guaido) that would allow foreign intervention, or be seen as “letting his people starve”. It’s a very cynical tactic – a kind of weaponizing of compassion – that is being dutifully parroted by much of the mainstream media.

In all of this, Canada is often seen as a mere “junior partner,” but the murky background reveals that Canada has played a more central role than is usually understood.

Junior Partner?

On January 26, Canadians learned the extent to which Canada’s “quiet diplomacy” had helped Venezuela’s Juan Guaido emerge to declare himself interim president on Jan. 23, in defiance of the elected president Maduro. In a lengthy piece for The Canadian Press, reporter Mike Blanchfield noted that “emboldening Venezuela’s opposition has been a labour of months” for Canadian diplomats, given that the opposition parties had been in complete disarray. [6] But by January 9, Canada’s Chrystia Freeland was able to phone Guaido and “congratulate him … on uniting the opposition.” [7] This was more than one week ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s phonecall to Guaido on January 22.

Freeland, working with the ad hoc Lima Group, had long been calling for unity among the Venezuelan opposition parties. After foreign affairs ministers from the Lima Group met in Toronto on October 26, 2017, Freeland appeared at a Munk School of Global Affairs panel and said the message of the Lima Group to the Venezuelan opposition is “Get your act together, guys!” At that time, Freeland also called for further “isolation” of President Maduro and said that “Canadians feel strongly about human rights for people in other countries … This is our neighbourhood,” she stated, “this is our hemisphere…” [8]

Then came Maduro’s May 20, 2018 presidential victory, in which the Venezuelan people re-elected him despite years of suffering under U.S. economic warfare. [9] As Greg Palast recently stated, “No nation could withstand” the kind of economic “siege” that has been directed at Venezuela, [10] Yet in 2018, Venezuelans voted to retain Maduro. The Canadian Press’s Mike Blanchfield noted that these election results “galvanized” the Lima Group.

It took months to unify Venezuela’s 16 opposition parties among themselves and also with the Lima Group, which Nino Pagliccia reminds us is “not an international organization. It’s just an ad hoc group of governments with no other purpose” than “the overthrow of the legitimate Maduro government.” [11]

So getting foreign ministers to agree with Venezuelan opposition parties on a uniting figure and platform must have been difficult. Similarly challenging would be “building bridges with a fractured opposition that was as much at odds with itself as it was with Maduro.” [12]

And here’s where one sentence from Blanchfield’s article stands out, especially for alert Canadian readers. He noted: “In a November [2018] report, the International Crisis Group documented the divisions and urged the groups to set aside their ‘personal and political rivalries’.” [13]

In Canada, we’ve read and heard that name quite a lot in the past few weeks. The International Crisis Group is the current employer of Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat and one of two Canadian men arrested in China in December in what appears to be retaliation for Canada’s arrest (at the request of the U.S.) on December 1, 2018 of Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, daughter of Huawei’s CEO and founder. Huawei is China’s Big Tech giant engaged in competition with the U.S. on wireless technologies.

So the question arises: is there some connection between these two international political situations – Canada’s role in Venezuela and Canada’s role in the China embroglio? As it turns out, the answer is yes, and the International Crisis Group (ICG) is an important player in that connection.

What Is the ICG?

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group touts itself as a think tank and NGO dedicated to its slogan: “Preventing War, Shaping Peace.” Its analysts study political crises and make recommendations for so-called conflict-resolution through a series of reports, articles, seminars, and private meetings with its governmental, foundation, and corporate donors.

Given that ICG had advised on unifying Venezuelan opposition parties, I asked Raul Burbano, Program Director for the Canadian NGO Common Frontiers for comment. During the 2018 Venezuelan presidential election, members of the Common Frontiers delegations had observer status. With regard to the International Crisis Group, Burbano answered by email, “They are a conservative right-wing think tank that masks itself as progressive. Any organization that proports to support peace and has Juan Manuel Santos as one of their trustees is out to lunch and can’t be trusted.” Santos is the “former hawkish right president of Colombia,” Burbano explained.

Former Colombian President Santos is not the only controversial trustee of the International Crisis Group. The ICG website lists several other trustees, including Wesley Clark (former NATO Supreme Allied Commander); Lawrence H. Summers (former U.S. Secretary of Treasury); George Soros (founder of Open Society Foundations); and Frank Giustra (President and CEO of Fiore Financial Corporation).

As F. William Engdahl recently wrote “The International Crisis Group is an NGO with a knack for being involved in key conflict zones such as Myanmar. The magazine Third World Quarterly in a peer-reviewed article in 2014 accused the ICG of ‘manufacturing’ crises.”[14] Engdahl states that International Crisis Group was founded by George Soros.

ICG says of its role: “Crisis Group enjoys strong relationships with government and foundation donors, whose long-term funding is critical to our organisation’s effectiveness. For governments, Crisis Group fills a vital niche as diplomats’ access to key conflict actors is increasingly hindered by security concerns and political obstacles. Senior officials tell Crisis Group that our reports are indispensable, with a unique emphasis on the political foundations of international peace and security. We engage substantively with our institutional donors through private policy briefings, roundtables, and rapid response from field experts and senior staff. Crisis Group in turn benefits from this sustained engagement and knowledge sharing with its donors. Our partners have come to rely on our information and analysis on developing emergencies.” [15]

The ICG website lists as one of its 19 governmental donors “Canada (Global Affairs Canada),” currently headed by Chrystia Freeland.

Advancing Peace?

Just days after Engdahl’s article referring to the ICG appeared, Vancouver billionaire and ICG trustee Frank Giustra wrote an op-ed for The Globe & Mail in which he named Michael Kovrig as ICG’s “senior advisor for North East Asia” and stated: “Mr. Kovrig works for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention organization that I have proudly supported for years. I am baffled by the allegations Chinese officials make against him – that he is somehow ‘endangering China’s national security’. Mr. Kovrig’s work – as anyone bothering to check it out would know – involves analysis of Chinese engagement with conflict-affected countries where Crisis Group advocates policies that advance peace, an approach congruent with China’s foreign policy. To conduct his research, he meets openly with China’s officials, analysts and academics to understand China’s perspectives on global affairs. His writings are published on Crisis Group’s website for all to see.” [16]

Interestingly, one of Mr. Kovrig’s recent analyses was entitled “Why China Should Help Solve Venezuela’s Deepening Crisis,” originally published as an op-ed in Asia Times (April 11, 2018). The piece, written with ICG colleague Phil Gunson, highlighted China’s political support for Venezuelan president Maduro and delineated China’s extensive financial investments in Venezuela, including $60 billion in loans, while noting China’s “overriding concern to ensure long-term access to Venezuelan oil and other raw materials.” [17]

The piece also stated that China’s support for Maduro is “increasingly at odds with another strategic priority for China: strengthening commercial ties with burgeoning economies elsewhere in Latin America. Beijing has stated its intention to pump $250 billion in direct investment into the region and ramp up trade to $500 billion in the coming years. … But China and these promising economic partners are on opposing sides of a divide over the political impasse in Venezuela.” [18]

So, in advance of the 2018 Venezuelan presidential election, what was it that ICG’s Michael Kovrig and Phil Gunson thought China should do? “As one of the [Venezuelan] government’s few remaining supporters, Beijing can either prolong Venezuela’s plight or join the Lima Group in persuading Maduro to bargain with the opposition. … In the long term, the goodwill [towards China] that would be generated among Venezuela’s people and Lima Group members would far outweigh any short-term cost to relations with Maduro.” [19]

While the language seems mild, reasonable, and diplomatic, the message to China is more formidable: Dump your support of Maduro or risk losing those “promising economic partners” in the rest of the region.

The piece further noted: “The Lima Group is backed by a broad international consensus that includes the US and the European Union.” [20]
Kovrig and Gunson’s piece ended with this: “Beijing has signaled that it is unwilling to invest forever in Venezuela’s present dysfunction. The time is ripe for Lima Group states to engage with China to align objectives and policies as far as possible.” [21]

Engaging with China?

At this point, there is no way of knowing how the Lima Group member countries subsequently “engaged” with China throughout the remainder of 2018, but by late November the decision had been made to arrest Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou in transit at the Vancouver International Airport on December 1, while U.S. president Donald Trump discussed trade issues with China’s leadership.

The timing of the arrest was strange, given that the U.S. has for many years been concerned about Huawei and its rising technological supremacy, especially in the pending rollout of 5G. As Amy Karam, author of The China Factor, noted in a recent op-ed, “Having tracked the Huawei concern for 14 years, I wonder why the West is just now mobilizing on this? The Huawei challenge is not new.” [22]

Arguably, one explanation for the timing of the arrest has to do with 5G (fifth generation wireless technology) itself. Throughout 2018, there has been increasing criticism across North America and Europe of 5G’s potential to massively irradiate people and the planet. [23] The arrest of Huawei’s executive is an attempt to change the narrative from one of whether 5G should be allowed at all, to which companies should do the rollout.
But major moves like this arrest usually have several motivations behind their timing.

It’s Always About Oil

Of course, the Chinese were infuriated by Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, and days later detained ICG’s Michael Kovrig and Canadian businessman Michael Spavor. [24]

By late January, with Juan Guaido having declared himself interim president of Venezuela, and with ICG’s Michael Kovrig still in Chinese custody, International Crisis Group trustee George Soros used his annual dinner at the World Economic Forum in Davos to attack China as a cybersecurity threat and urged the U.S. and others to “crack down” on Huawei. [25]

A day later, Juan Guaido made “rapid moves to privatize Venezuela’s oil and open the door for multinational corporations.” [26] The Trump administration backed up those moves with new sanctions on the country’s oil giant PDVSA. National Security Advisor John Bolton said that $7 billion of PDVSA assets would be immediately blocked, while the company would also lose about $11 billion in export payments over the coming year. [27] That was the same press conference in which Bolton was seen carrying a notepad which read: “5,000 troops to Colombia.”

These severe U.S. economic measures seem to have had some effect on China’s plans. On January 31, Reuters reported that PetroChina Company “plans to drop Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) as a partner in a planned $10 billion oil refinery and petrochemical project in southern China,” and noted that under the revised plan, “the refinery will not be restricted to Venezuelan oil” but could process other heavy crude oil that could come from other countries. [28]

No doubt, the International Crisis Group’s Big Oil donors – Chevron, Shell, BP – are pleased with the way things are unfolding. Chevron and Shell are part of ICG’s International Advisory Council, whose members (the ICG website says) “play a key role in Crisis Group’s efforts to prevent deadly conflict.” [29]

As MintPress News’ Whitney Webb has noted, “[I]f Guaido comes to power and privatizes PDVSA, U.S. oil companies – with Chevron and Halliburton leading the pack – stand to make record profits in the world’s most oil-rich nation, as they did in Iraq following the privatization of its national oil industry after U.S. intervention. Worst of all, as the U.S.’ past interventions in Iraq and Libya and elsewhere have shown, Washington stands willing to kill untold thousands of innocent people in Venezuela – either through direct military intervention or a proxy war – to benefit American oil companies.” [30]

At least one Canadian commentator has expressed concern about the effects that privatizing Venezuelan oil would have on the Alberta oilpatch. David Climenhaga writes, “This is potentially serious for Alberta because Venezuela is conveniently located just across the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico near the U.S. refineries along the Gulf Coast of Texas, where most of Alberta’s low-quality bitumen nowadays ends up. In the simplest terms, one likely effect of this unfolding scenario would be to flood those American refineries with cheap, heavy oil from Venezuela,” thereby depressing “the price fetched by Alberta oil, especially low-quality oilsands bitumen.” [31]

This would especially benefit the Koch Brothers, whose Flint Hills Resources refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas is right next to Venezuela’s Citgo refinery. But there are many other coastal U.S. refineries that can process heavy oil.

As U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) tweeted on January 24, the “Biggest buyers of Venezuelan oil are Valero Energy & Chevron. Refining heavy crude from Venezuela supports great jobs in Gulf Coast. For the sake of these U.S. workers I hope they [Valero and Chevron] will begin working with administration of President Guaido & cut off illegitimate Maduro regime.” [32]

In the meantime, the U.S. imposed sanctions are causing a temporary heavy-oil supply gap in the U.S., and Alberta tar sands producers are scrambling to take advantage of that, but they lack pipeline and rail capacity to meet the sudden demand. [33]

While Climenhaga is correct that no politician (including Chrystia Freeland) is talking about this oilpatch situation, it may be because the discussions are taking place behind closed doors and with the International Crisis Group’s Big Oil donors. After all, Chevron, Shell and BP have reserves of millions of barrels of Alberta tar sands crude [34], while the Trudeau government is committed to pipeline expansion for crude export.

Readers will recall that in 2018, the Trudeau Liberal government foolishly purchased Texas-based Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project for $4.4 billion, when no private company would touch it. The Liberals tout it as a way to export bitumen to China, but as I have argued elsewhere, four refineries in Washington State (including those owned by Shell and BP) are especially poised to profit from the Trans Mountain expansion, which includes a spur line called the Puget Sound Pipeline that could be expanded to bring 500,000 barrels per day to Washington State. [35]

Nonetheless, with Venezuela’s PDVSA having been dropped as a partner in the planned oil refinery in southern China, heavy crude from Canada could eventually be refined there if the Trans Mountain Expansion project goes ahead. February 22 is the deadline for Canada’s National Energy Board to release its report on the marine impact of the expansion project.

But as Climenhaga reminds us, multinational oil giants “have no loyalty to any jurisdiction,” only to “the best return on investment.” [36] In that sense, ICG’s Big Oil and other donors, the International Crisis Group itself, and possibly even Canadian petrostate politicians like Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland are likely less concerned at the moment about Alberta’s oil patch than about the fact that Venezuela is poised to assume “the presidency of OPEC and will be in a position to push for oil payments in non-dollar currencies or cryptocurrencies, a major threat to the U.S. dollar.” [37]

As Pepe Escobar and others have noted, bypassing the U.S. dollar and U.S.-controlled currency exchanges is considered “the ultimate cardinal sin …Remember Iraq. Remember Libya. Yet Iran is also doing it. Turkey is doing it. Russia is – partially- on the way. And China will eventually trade all its energy in petroyuan.” [38] With regard to the current attempt by the U.S. and its allies to privatize Venezuela’s oil, “the key is to monopolize their exploitation in U.S. dollars, benefitting a few Big Oil billionaires.” [39]

Just how far will Canada go to protect this system? Stay tuned.


[1] Thomas Walkom, “Beware of domestic tricks,” Toronto Star, February 4, 2019.
[2]Thomas Walkom, “Return of the liberal hawk,” Toronto Star, January 28, 2019.
[3] Rick Salutin, “Canadian policy in Venezuela about imperialism, not democracy,” rabble.ca, February 8, 2019.
[4] John Kirk and Stephen Kimber, “Canada’s leadership on Venezuela is misguided – and a mistake,” The Globe and Mail, February 6, 2019.
[5] Thomas Walkom, “Ottawa wrong to support military solution in Venezuela,” Toronto Star, February 5, 2019.
[6] Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press, “Quiet Canadian diplomacy helped Guaido’s anti-Madura movement in Venezuela,” National Post, January 26, 2019.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Joyce Nelson, “Canada vs. Venezuela: Have the Koch Brothers Captured Canada’s Left?” Counterpunch, February 16, 2018.
[9] Joyce Nelson, “Economic Warfare,” Watershed Sentinel, August 3, 2017; reprinted as “Venezuela: Target of Economic Warfare,” Counterpunch, August 11, 2017.
[10] Greg Palast interview with the Scott Horton Show, February 5, 2019.
[11] Nino Pagliccia, “The ‘Lima Group’ Mandate to Trigger Regime Change in Venezuela,” Global Research, January 19, 2019.
[12] Blanchfield, op cit.
[13] Ibid.
[14] F. William Engdahl, “Is Canada Huawei Arrest Attempt to Sabotage Trump XI Talks?” Global Research, December 19, 2019.
[15] www.crisisgroup.org/support-us/our-supporters/governments-foundations
[16] Frank Giustra, “The Chinese government needs friends – people who are a lot like the Canadians it has detained,” The Globe and Mail, December 24, 2018.
[17] Michael Kovrig and Phil Gunson, “Why China Should Help Solve Venezuela’s Deepening Crisis,” Asia Times, April 11, 2018; re-posted on www.crisisgroup.org.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Amy Karam, “The West can learn from Huawei’s wins,” Toronto Star, January 30, 2019.
[23] Joyce Nelson, “5G Corporate Grail: Smart Cities/Dumb People?” Watershed Sentinel, November 5, 2018; reprinted as “5G Corporate Grail: Microwave Radiation,” Global Research, November 9, 2018.
[24] Ben Blanchard, John Ruwitch, “Detained Canadian in China being probed for harming state security,” Reuters, December 11, 2018.
[25] Larry Elliott, “George Soros: China is using tech advances to repress its people,” The Guardian, January 24, 2019.
[26] Ben Norton, “US Anointed ‘President’ Moves to Seize National Petroleum Company,” The Gray Zone, January 25, 2019.
[27] Tom Phillips, “Trump steps up Maduro pressure with sanctions against Venezuelan oil giant,” The Guardian, January 29, 2019.
[28] Chen Aizhu, “Exclusive: PetroChina to drop PDVSA as partner in refinery project – sources,” Reuters, January 31, 2019.
[29] www.crisisgroup.org.
[30] Whitney Webb, “Regime Change for Profit: Chevron Halliburton Cheer on US Venezuela Coup,” MintPress News, February 4, 2019.
[31] David J. Climenhaga, “Has anyone thought about impact regime change in Venezuela will have on Alberta’s oilpatch?” rabble.ca, Februrary 8, 2019.
[32] Quoted in Webb, op. cit.
[33] David Olive, “Can anything be done about stagnant pay?” Toronto Star, February 4, 2019.
[34] Rainforest Action Network, List of Tar Sands Companies, www.ran.org/list-tar-sands-companies/
[35] Joyce Nelson, “Kinder Morgan Bait & Switch: Backdoor pipeline to Washington State refineries could save Trans Mountain Expansion,” Commonsensecanadian.ca, June 8, 2018.
[36] Climenhaga, op. cit.
[37] Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers, “Venezuela: What Activists Needs to Know About the US-led Coup,” Global Research, January 29, 2019.
[38] Pepe Escobar, “Venezuela: Let’s Cut to the Chase. Will China’s Petroyuan Displace America’s Petrodollar?” Strategic Culture Foundation, February 1, 2019.
[39] Ibid.

More articles by:

Joyce Nelson’s sixth book, Beyond Banksters: Resisting the New Feudalism, can be ordered at: http://watershedsentinel.ca/banksters. She can be reached through www.joycenelson.ca.

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