The Lima Group met in Ottawa and signed the Ottawa Declaration to oust President Maduro from power in Venezuela. 13 conservative Latin American governments, plus Canada, officially recognized Juan Guaido as the transitional President of Venezuela and accepted Venezuela’s membership to the Lima Group. Yves Engler, Dimitri Lascaris, and Greg Wilpert discuss the outcome
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
The 13 countries that are members of the Lima Group met in Ottawa on Monday to unveil their joint position on Venezuela. The meeting has resulted in two declarations. The Lima Group includes all of the conservative governments of South America, plus Canada. They have all signed the Lima Group declaration which recognizes Juan Guaido as the interim president, and it includes an article which prevents the Maduro regime “from conducting financial and trade transactions and doing business with their oil, gold, and other assets.” They were also joined by members of the European Union and the United States for what is now called the Ottawa Declaration, which was signed by everybody present. Here is how Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened the ministerial meeting.
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: The time for democratic transition in Venezuela is now. The international community must immediately unite behind the interim president seeking to restore democracy to the country. Today the Lima Group is sending a clear message of support to the Venezuelan people as they chart their own path forward.
SHARMINI PERIES: And here is a clip of Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland when she spoke at the closing press conference.
CHRYSTIA FREELAND: The Maduro regime has violated the constitutional law of his country, and created an economic and political crisis that endangers the lives of millions of Venezuelans.
We are publishing the Ottawa Declaration for Venezuela. The principles we are all endorsing are focused on the Venezuelan people’s just and peaceful aspirations. We, the Lima Group, call on all democratic countries around the world, particularly those that have joined us in recognizing Juan Guaido as interim president, to endorse this declaration of support for the Venezuelan people. Venezuela’s National Assembly and interim president Guaido have charted a constitutional path forward to establish an interim government. Even as I speak, 34 countries around the world have recognized Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela, in line with Venezuela’s Constitution.
Whether in Ottawa or other capitals of the world, it’s more clear than ever that the international consensus-
PROTESTERS: Hands off Venezuela! Hands off Venezuela! Hands off Venezuela!
PROTESTER: Hands off Venezuela! Respect the human rights and the freedom of the people.
CHRYSTIA FREELAND: -right to protest, and the views of Canadians.
But let me say it is the view of the government of Canada, it is the view of the Lima Group gathered here today, that in supporting Juan Guaido, recognizing him as interim president of Venezuela, we are recognizing and supporting the right of the people of Venezuela to enjoy democracy; the kind of democracy which political protesters in Canada do enjoy, and I am sad to say political protesters in Venezuela do not.
SPEAKER: What’s your message to the military brass in Venezuela?
CHRISTIA FREELAND: That is a great question, Michelle, and let me answer it in two parts. As Nestor has said, and as you see in the communique, we are indeed calling on the military of Venezuela, as we call on all Venezuelans and as we call on all governments of the world, to recognize Juan Guaido as interim president of Venezuela. We believe that according to Venezuela’s own Constitution the National Assembly is the only democratically legitimate body in Venezuela. And that is the source of Juan Guaido’s legitimacy as interim president as Venezuela moves towards reestablishing its democracy through elections, which we hope and believe need to be held as quickly as possible.
I do also want to address the issue of outside military intervention, and an important point in our communique is Point 17, where we have agreed, and I quote: “Finally, they,” this is the countries of the Lima Group, “reiterate their support for a process of peaceful transition through political and diplomatic means, without the use of force.” This is very much Canada’s position. This is a process led by the people of Venezuela; led by the people of Venezuela in their very brave quest to return their country, themselves, to democracy, in accordance with their own Constitution. And it is the the Venezuelan leadership of this process which is the reason that we are so glad to be welcoming Venezuela, in the person today of Julio Borges, into the Lima Group as a fully-fledged member of this group of countries in our hemisphere who share our values and share our support for our hemisphere being a place of democracy.
Today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced $53 million for humanitarian and development aid. Canadian funding will go to trusted partners, and it will be directed at responding to the essential needs of those most touched by the crisis, such as migrants and refugees who have taken refuge in neighboring countries.
SHARMINI PERIES: Venezuela’s opposition leader and president of the National Assembly, as well as the self-declared interim president Juan Guaido, also addressed the Lima Group by teleconference.
JUAN GUAIDO: Our path is absolutely constitutional and with respecting the rule of law, and we reject the regime. And that is why we are in favor of the Constitution, to put an end to the usurpation, in order to achieve a transitional government, in order to be able to have free elections as soon as possible, in order to reorient our country towards democracy and be able to support the region. Unfortunately we are still under a dictatorship in Venezuela at the moment.
SHARMINI PERIES: It is to be noted that leading up to the Lima Group meeting in Ottawa, Mexico, now under the leadership of President Lopez Obrador, distanced itself from the Lima group’s position and said that Mexico will not recognize the so-called transitional president, Juan Guaido, and is instead advocating for dialogue and negotiations. EU and Uruguay will be hosting another meeting, but this one of neutral countries on Thursday, February 7, in Montevideo.
Over the last weekend, as you saw in reports we have published, our correspondent Dimitri Lascaris covered two large protests. And these were huge protests, but they were both in favor of the federal government and against the Maduro government. But if you were to watch the mainstream networks, you barely saw any coverage of the pro-Maduro protests that were equally as large as the opposition demonstrations. None of this was recognized at the Lima Group meeting. Now, also President Nicolas Maduro has suggested that instead of new presidential elections, which is what the European Union had demanded of the Venezuelan President Maduro, to call for elections, instead of that, Venezuelan President Maduro is suggesting that National Assembly elections could be moved forward. Now, these elections were to be scheduled for 2020.
Joining us now to discuss the latest developments having to do with Venezuela are three guests. First, it’s Yves Engler. He’s joining us from Montreal. He’s a Canadian commentator and author. His most recent book is Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada. He joins us, as I said, from Montreal.
YVES ENGLER: Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joining us from Caracas is Dimitri Lascaris. He is a lawyer and a TRNN correspondent in Caracas. Dimitri, good to have you with us.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thank you very much, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: And here in our studio joining me is Gregory Wilpert, our managing editor, and author of the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. Welcome.
GREG WILPERT: My pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Yves Engler, you are the closest to the Lima Group meeting taking place in Ottawa. Now, tell us how this meeting unfolded this afternoon, and set the stage for us.
YVES ENGLER: Well, the Canadian government brought together the governments in the hemisphere that are pushing for regime change. The Canadian government announced that it was going to give $53 million in aid to Venezuela, but it’s going to go to groups unidentified that are in bordering countries. They frame it as humanitarian aid, but very well may go to supporting opposition forces. Big picture it definitely is supporting opposition forces, but it might in a more particular way.
And this is a sort of continuation of a ramping up of a Canadian government policy. At the meeting the Canadian government recognized Juan Guaido’s representative in Canada now as the official representative of the Venezuelan government. In the leadup to the meeting yesterday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a conversation with Juan Guaido. They’ve been making many calls, international calls. As you played in the clip, they’ve been–Justin Trudeau’s been calling heads of state around the world, asking them to recognize Juan Guaido. And basically the Canadian government is really sort of ramping up its push for regime change in Venezuela. And the meeting today was really about consolidating the international coalition, the sort of coalition of the willing against the Maduro government in Venezuela. And I think that this is part of a multi-year campaign to ratchet up pressure against the Venezuelan government.
SHARMINI PERIES: Yves, Juan Guaido not only got a forum to speak to the Lima Group, and then shortly after that Chrystia Freeland announced that Juan Guaido had asked to join the Lima Group, and that he was welcomed by the body. She also announced that $53 million in aid would be provided by the Canadian government. Speak to those two items for us. How is this being received by Canadians, Canadian Parliament, the opposition members?
YVES ENGLER: Yeah. Well, so, now the Venezuelan government is part of the coalition trying to overthrow the Venezuelan government. That’s essentially what they did when they brought Juan Guaido into their Lima group.
But the opposition in Canada is fairly limited. There is–there was grassroots, there was rallies across the country in five different cities critical of Canada’s role in holding the Lima Group meeting today, including a demonstration in Ottawa. And there was actually people disrupted the press conference, criticizing the final press conference of the Lima Group today. But the reality is the official political realm there is very limited opposition. Even the NDP, the nominally Social Democratic opposition party, has mostly gone along with this Canadian government policy. There’s been some elements, the left-wing elements of the NDP, have criticized Canada’s role in this effort at regime change. The largest labor union in the country put out a very good statement criticising the Canadian support for regime change. But the reality is that the media is overwhelmingly supportive of this Canadian policy. It’s actually incredible to watch how limited the dissent is towards Ottawa’s policies in Venezuela.
And so the voices that are wondering if this is a good idea that Canada pushed for, you know, what potentially could lead towards an actual civil war or foreign invasion of some sort, those voices are very much marginalized in the official political discussion.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, the Lima Group is essentially using three arguments to justify this intervention of Venezuela. One, they’re saying the Venezuelan people are suffering. There is an exodus going on. There is a food crises. There is economic crises. And they’re suffering. Yes, I think everybody around this table would acknowledge that, people on the ground would acknowledge that, all these countries, the Lima Group, acknowledges that. That is not an issue. What is causing that crisis, many will argue, that that is because of the current economic sanctions that are imposed on the government. Now, two, they all say that this particular move of Juan Guaido, declaring himself president of Venezuela, is within the legal boundaries of the Constitution of Venezuela. And we just saw Justin Trudeau citing Article 233. Now, he’s banking on the fact that Canadians aren’t familiar with the Venezuelan constitution. But Dimitri, you’ve actually read this constitutional clause. Tell us what it says, and how you read it.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, let’s start with the claim that Guaido is the legitimate president of Venezuela. Guaido has never won a presidential election in Venezuela, number one. Number two, the election that was held in May of 2018, in which Maduro won by a substantial margin, was certified by international election observers as being free and fair. Number three, amazingly, and this is something that’s little talked about in the press in the Western Hemisphere nowadays, the opposition asked the United Nations not to send election observers, whereas Maduro asked the United Nations to do so. And the preposterous explanation that was given by the opposition for its request to the UN not to send election observers was that their presence here would legitimize the election. Well, that’s the reason why it would have legitimized the elections, because in fact, the election was free and fair.
So quite apart from all of that, the Lima Group, and Guaido and the opposition, and today Justin Trudeau after or during the course of the Lima Group meeting, have been invoking a particular clause of the Venezuelan constitution. And I know that Greg knows quite a bit about this and would be happy to hear his input on this. But as a lawyer, I’ve read this with some interest. This Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, on which they have pinned their legal case for the legitimacy of Guaido’s presidency, basically envisions that the–an interim, the president of the National Assembly can become the president on an interim basis–I’m going to come back to that in a moment–in six specific circumstances, none of which apply here.
The six specific circumstances are death–well, Maduro isn’t dead. Resignation–well, Maduro hasn’t resigned. Removal from office by a decision of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. That hasn’t happened. Permanent physical or mental disabilities certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, with the approval of the National Assembly. No, that doesn’t apply. Abandonment of his position. Well, Nicolas Maduro is doing the exact opposite of abandoning his position. He’s forcefully asserting that he remains the president of the country. And finally, a duly declared recall by popular vote. So that hasn’t happened.
None of the six conditions specified in Article 233 apply. And even if one of them did, what it says is that the elected–what must happen is within 30 days of the interim president being appointed or coming to power, there has to be an election for a new president. And as far as I know, there’s no realistic plan for a new election to happen so that that aspect of Article 233 could be complied with.
And what’s very interesting–Yves was talking about the way the Canadian media is portraying this. Today there was an article in the CBC, our national broadcaster, which talked about these most recent developments, quoted Justin Trudeau invoking Article 233, of which he apparently knows absolutely nothing. And the way it was characterized, this article, as–it was characterized as being applicable in six situations where there is “a vacancy in the presidency.” That is, in fact, not what it says. It has six specific circumstances in which a president, a new president, an interim president, can be appointed, and none of them apply here. So the media, whether wittingly or unwittingly, in the West are mischaracterizing what Article 233 says. And there is absolutely, as far as I can tell, no legal basis to the claims by Guaido that he is the legitimate president of Venezuela.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Greg, now, obviously Justin Trudeau is banking on the fact that Canadians know nothing about the Venezuelan Constitution. Now, this is a Constitution that was recently, shortly after President Chavez was elected, that he consulted the entire country with. It was written with such intricacies that every potential scenario would be addressed, including situations like this. Tell us the way in which most Venezuelans have this ultimate respect for the Constitution, but more closely, the articles and the covenants within it that needs to be respected.
GREG WILPERT: Well, yeah. That was one of the things, one of the big achievements, I would say, of the Chavez government, was precisely to create a Constitution where people actually read it. It’s a fairly long Constitution, as far as Constitutions go. And they would study circles. I mean, this was back in 1999 when it passed, in 2000. They’d have study circles, and people would actually memorize and learn and study the Constitution in great detail.
SHARMINI PERIES: And carry it around with them in their pocket. In fact, there’s a pocket edition which is about this big. And I see a lot of Venezuelans, especially Chavista supporters, carrying it.
GREG WILPERT: I think also an important aspect of that Constitution is that it’s also the Constitution that maybe–you know, it was very–it is very progressive in many ways. I mean, it calls for participatory democracy, calls for redistribution of wealth, it calls for all kinds of very progressive aims for social justice. And even though that wasn’t achieved, necessarily, during the Chavez government–at least, not to the extent that he had envisioned it–the Constitution was always held up, so to speak, as a beacon, as a guidepost for how things could be better, and as something to strive towards. And so now they’re really, I think, making a mockery, actually, of the Constitution in the sense that, as Dimitri, I think, correctly points out. They’re just reading the two sentences that they like and completely ignoring what comes before and after it. Actually, I even heard Guaido, at one point, say that he doesn’t think an election could happen for another nine months, even if he were to be able to become president. I mean, real, de facto president.
So I mean, it just shows that this is really–they’re just reading those two sentences that are convenient for them in the moment. And what’s really, truly shocking is that, of course, the rest of the world is saying, oh, no. I mean, you saw the press conference with Chrystia Freeland today. She was constantly also talking about how constitutional this is, he’s the legitimate president, and we call on all the governments in the world to recognize Guaido as being the constitutional government–the president of Venezuela, and so on. And you know, that falls apart in two seconds if you just dig a little bit deeper.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Dimitri, let me go to you. You attended two demonstrations yesterday, one opposition, one pro-government. What are some of the people on the ground saying about this current situation unfolding?
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, the–on the opposition side, you know, I actually walked for–I would say seven kilometers from a subway station near my hotel all the way down to the place where the opposition supporters have been directed to congregate. Interestingly, that was one of the most affluent parts of Caracas, and that was no coincidence, because, you know, that’s where the opposition derives its huge proportion of its support, from the more affluent elements of Venezuelan society. And all the way down I was hearing all sorts of insults being hurled at Maduro. Occasionally there were some insults to Chavez, but really the invective was being directed at Maduro, overwhelmingly. And when we, when we got down–and it was, by any rational measure, a very large protest. You know, there were tens of thousands of people out there.
When we got–by the time we got down to the point at which Guaido was going to speak, I had not seen a single officer in riot gear. Not one. I had not seen a single soldier. Not one. I had seen perhaps two or three dozen traffic cops. And I contrast this to the protests that I frequently attend both as a participant and oftentimes as a journalist in Canada, the United States, and Europe, Greece, France. It is now routine to see a large contingent of militarized police, you know, in these so-called democracies. But the brutal dictator, as they have characterized him, Maduro, did not–at least at this protest. I can’t, I can’t comment on other protests. But what I saw in this major protest, where people were calling for the elected president of the country to be deposed by the military, was no militarized police presence whatsoever. No military presence whatsoever.
I then went over the protest of the Chavistas, which was in the western part of the city. Again, I saw no militarized police, and much less invective, I would say. A lot of indication of the legacy of Hugo Chavez. Obviously they–you know, the people who were there feel very strongly about the revolution, as they call it, that Chavez instituted when he rose to power in this country. They continue to have a great deal of love for him. I think it’s fair to say that Maduro is, you know, trying to ride the coattails of the Chavez legacy, to a large degree. But there’s no doubt that those people feel very strongly about that revolution, and I’ve spoken to people who’ve said they’re willing to die to to protect the revolution.
So you know, what we have to understand here is we have a deeply divided Venezuelan society. It’s divided not only on political grounds, it’s also divided on racial grounds, on socioeconomic grounds. The two sides feel very strongly about their position. And what we really truly need now is to approach the crisis here with delicacy and with intelligent diplomacy. And unfortunately, the last government in the Western Hemisphere upon which we can rely on the world for intelligent, delicate diplomacy is the Trump administration. And let’s be honest, that is the administration that’s driving the bus here, whatever the Canadian government may say.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Yves, let me give you the last word. The Canadian government committed $53 million today to assist Venezuela. But then in her statement, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said that this money would be helping the border states deal with refugees, and it would go to partners. You are a historian of Canada, and you’ve been following this situation very closely. Tell us what that $53 million is earmarked for, and how you think it’s going to be spent.
YVES ENGLER: Well, I can mostly just speculate, at this point. But I would be very surprised if that money, or chunks of that money, don’t go to supporting opposition groups in a direct sense of, you know, building them up, strengthening them. Canada has been doing that for–at least since 2005 there are examples that we, of Canada financing opposition groups that oppose the Chavez government, groups opposing the Maduro government. Some of that money will definitely go that way.
Part of that, of course, is designed to play up the humanitarian crisis, the real crisis, and make it make it seem like a bigger issue than it is. I also think that some of that might go towards–there’s some talk about, of aid, trying to have the aid come in from Colombia, that the Venezuelan military is supposed to allow. The Americans are trying to do that, and it’s, I think it’s tied to putting pressure on the Venezuelan military. That was also in the Lima Group’s statement, was a call for the Venezuelan military to recognize Juan Guaido. That was one of the points in their release.
So I think it’s–you know, the Canadian government portrays it as humanitarian. But there is a long history of Canada’s aid going to support for an invasion. I’ve actually–I call it the aid intervention principle, or where U.S. and Canadian troops are killing people, Canada provides aid. And there’s a long–that goes back to the Korean War in the 1950s. But in the mid-2000s, for instance, Canada was providing aid. The three main recipients of aid were in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Haiti. All three of those countries had Canadian or U.S. troops occupying those places. So there’s a long history of Canadian aid being used as sort of an interventionist tool to provide sometimes a political cover for military intervention. Sometimes just as a way to, I think in this case, sort of further demonize the government by exaggerating the extent of the humanitarian crisis. But I think we we can state pretty safely that this aid money, some of this money, will be going to groups that are clearly politically aligned against the Maduro government.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Greg, I know you want to get in on this. Now, Chrystia Freeland, when she announced, she said this would be–this money will be going to some local partners. Now, Juan Guaido, after speaking to the Lima Group, also made some press statements in reference to this aid. What did he say?
GREG WILPERT: Well, it was kind of interesting. I mean, he was implying, basically, that the aid money should–that they were calling, basically, on the Venezuelan military to allow the aid to go through. In other words, if Maduro were to say that no, we’re not going to participate in this relief effort, then the military should turn against Maduro, and should–and there was even the implication, I think, that if they, that their turning against Maduro would, of course, would make it more likely that the aid will arrive, and so–and that they would, that this would be part of a whole plan, basically, to encourage more military to turn against Maduro.
But that’s also the other point that I want to make very quickly, that I think is extremely important, that shouldn’t be forgotten. During the press conference, one of the protests, one of the things that they were chanting was something about no coup in Venezuela. And then one of the journalists asked, well, is it? Is that what you’re aiming to do, a coup in Venezuela? And Chrystia Freeland said no, we’re not. But we are calling on the military to reject Maduro. It boggles my mind. I mean, how can you claim that there’s no coup, or that they’re not supporting a coup, but at the same time saying that the military should rise up against the president? Or, of course, they’re saying he’s not the president. But that doesn’t matter. He is, de facto, the president. So any military uprising against him will be a coup. Just that not only she, but the 13 other, or 12 other, members of the Lima Group, plus I think four or five of the European Union, plus the United States, that they all could just get away with saying something like that that is so blatantly contradictory. And then of course they also in the next breath say that we don’t want any bloodshed, and we want a peaceful resolution. But everything they’re doing is exactly the opposite, and I think that’s really important to highlight.
SHARMINI PERIES: I’ve been speaking with Gregory Wilpert here in the studio, Yves Engler coming to us from Montreal, and Dimitri Lascaris in Caracas. Thank you all for joining me.
GREG WILPERT: My pleasure.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thank you.
YVES ENGLER: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.