OTTAWA — Canada is calling a meeting of its Lima Group partners next week to try to build new momentum in their effort to bring democracy to Venezuela.
Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne is hosting the gathering of foreign ministers from the coalition of Western Hemisphere countries — minus the United States — next Thursday in Gatineau, Que., across from Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido is not expected to attend the meeting because he has just returned to Venezuela after an extensive world tour that included Canada, Europe and the U.S. to drum up support for his efforts to oust President Nicolas Maduro.
Canada and dozens of other countries recognize Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, and view Maduro as a dictator who stole his country’s last presidential election.
Armed forces loyal to Maduro blocked elected members of Venezuela’s National Assembly from entering their legislature last month, amid a bid to replace Guaido as the assembly’s speaker with a legislator friendlier to Maduro.
Guaido received a boisterous welcome home on Tuesday during a speech in a main square of Caracas after his international tour, telling his supporters that he has the backing of the “free world” to take back the country on their behalf.
When Canada last hosted the Lima Group one year ago in Ottawa, it issued a joint declaration calling on the Venezuelan military to change allegiance and support Guaido.
That never happened and disillusioned Venezuelans are now fleeing in record numbers. The United Nations estimates six million Venezuelans will leave their country by the year’s end, as its economic, health and education systems collapse — a crisis widely blamed on Maduro’s corruption.
At next week’s meeting, the major task of the Lima Group ought to be shifting to a long-term strategy for supporting Venezuela and easing the humanitarian suffering of its people, said Ben Rowswell, Canada’s former ambassador to the once-prosperous, oil-rich South American nation.
“They have more of a failed-state situation on the ground now where the Maduro government clearly doesn’t control a lot of what’s happening on its own territory, which is why Guaido is still a free man a whole year after being a rival president,” said Rowswell, now the president of the Canadian International Council think-tank.
The Lima Group is made up of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela.
The group needs to find ways to build support among countries, such as Cuba, that support the Maduro government, and Rowswell said that can be done if there’s a concerted effort to focus on addressing Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.
“Those kinds of conversations can crystallize into a new and broader international coalition with the imperative of addressing the humanitarian needs as the central objective. It doesn’t rule out political change,” he said.
While that political change may appear stalled, Rowswell said the widespread support that Guaido garnered on his international tour — including the enthusiastic reception he received in Canada — and the fact that he has returned to Venezuela unscathed does create new opportunities.
“Guaido has revived his momentum with his own population and internationally with his successful tour,” he said. Guaido managed to bring that support home, “and demonstrate yet again the weakness of the Maduro regime.”
The biggest accomplishment of last year’s Lima Group meeting in Ottawa was a forceful joint declaration that external military force, namely from the U.S., was not an option for removing Maduro, said Rowswell.
Sabre-rattling by the U.S. only emboldened Maduro’s supporters and solidified his hold on power, he said.
In December, the U.S. Congress issued a statement committing the American government to “a peaceful negotiation as the only exit” to the Venezuelan crisis, said Rowswell.
“(That was) as close as you’re going to see to the U.S. taking the military option off the table,” he said.
“With that, people can take a breath and realize there’s not going to be an international war over Venezuela.”