Ottawa is right to be calling for change in Venezuela

Ottawa is right to be calling for change in Venezuela

04/02 - 18:56 - It would be hard to name a world leader who has done more damage to his own country than Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. And yet there remains some doubt about the wisdom of forcing his ouster, as the United States, Canada and a growing group of nations are actively calling for. Globe editorial

As of Monday, there are at least 15 countries, including many in South America, that want to see him replaced by Juan Guaidó, the President of Venezuela’s National Assembly.

“Canada recognizes Juan Guaidó… as the interim President of Venezuela,” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Jan. 23, one of the first international calls for Mr. Maduro’s removal. On Monday, Ottawa pledged $53-million in aid for the country’s beleaguered people.

Critics have accused Ms. Freeland of supporting a coup. The fact that U.S. President Donald Trump is suddenly leading the call for Mr. Maduro’s ouster and has imposed crippling sanctions on Venezuela’s already diminished oil industry, has raised the ancient spectre of Washington meddling in a Latin American country.

But while there must always be concerns about outside interference in the affairs of a sovereign state, in this case doing so is justified – for a number of good reasons.

The overarching justification is the terrible harm Mr. Maduro has done to his people. When he took power in 2013, Venezuela’s economy was already severely mismanaged, but it was nevertheless a solidly middle-income country. That’s because it has the world’s largest estimated oil reserves, and benefited from high crude prices.

The global oil price slump exposed the Maduro’s regime for what it is. Without billions in oil revenues to hide its incompetence and pay for its rampant corruption, the country is on the verge of collapse.

Inflation is running in the millions of per cent; at this rate, The Economist magazine estimates that the Venezuelan equivalent of $10,000 at the beginning of this year will be worth 59 cents by the end of it. Mr. Maduro cannot feed his people; residents of Caracas have been forced to scrounge through garbage bags to find nourishment. Hospitals lack basic medicine and often have no power. The murder rate has exploded. Millions have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, an unprecedented exodus from a nation not at war.

Venezuelans have overwhelmingly turned against Mr. Maduro. One poll found that 80 per cent want him gone. There have been growing protests calling for his removal, which culminated on Jan. 23 when Mr. Guaidó proclaimed himself the country’s acting president and one million people took to the streets to support him.

Mr. Maduro responded with violence – on Jan. 23 alone, 35 people died on clashes with police. But that was merely a continuation of his authoritarian regime, and is another reason to support his ouster.

His re-election in 2018 was rigged in his favour to a farcical degree. Most western countries refused to recognize the vote and urged him not to start a new term on Jan. 19 of this year.

Mr. Guaidó's claim to the office on the grounds Mr. Maduro’s election was fraudulent is something that the Venezuelan constitution allows for, and therefore has some legitimacy. This is not a coup; Mr. Guaidó is relying on the rule of law.

A third reason for Canada and its allies to back Mr. Guaidó is the message that it sends. Mr. Maduro is a corrupt and incompetent authoritarian who is endangering his own people. His only real support in the international community comes from the dictatorship in Cuba and from Russia, where President Vladimir Putin sees a kindred spirit.

Moscow has decried what it calls American meddling in Venezuela, a laughable charge from a country that is propping up the Maduro regime with cash and has reportedly sent 400 mercenaries to Venezuela to reinforce the President’s military support.

Mr. Putin doesn’t want to see his fellow dictator brought down by an effort to starve Mr. Maduro of the revenues needed to keep corrupt military allies on his side. Nor does he want to see Western countries, and Venezuela’s neighbours, successfully demand that the Venezuelan constitution be respected by having Mr. Guaidó serve as interim president until new elections can be held.

For Mr. Putin, and the planet’s other authoritarian leaders, this is their worst nightmare. There is much at stake in Venezuela, for the country and for the world.