By Alex Cosh & José Luis Granados Ceja
Includes updates added Oct. 25, 2022, 4:00 p.m. PST, and Oct. 26, 4:20 p.m. PST.
A briefing note obtained by The Maple confirms that Canadian government funding quietly propped up an astroturf group led by a member of Venezuela’s self-appointed “interim government,” which is now reported to be on the verge of collapse.
Venezuelan feminists and human rights activists say Canada’s support for the group highlights an attempt by Ottawa to revamp its failed policy of supporting illegitimate political forces inside the Latin American country with "feminist" branding.
The finding follows news last week that Venezuela’s opposition parties are preparing to abandon the so-called “interim government,” which launched a failed coup attempt in 2019. A senior opposition figure told the Financial Times: “There is an overwhelming conviction among the majority [of the opposition] that … the interim government is at odds with reality.” The “interim government” – led by self-appointed “interim president” Juan Guaidó – suffered another major defeat earlier this month when 19 members of the Organization of American States (OAS) supported a proposal to remove the group’s envoy for political and economic issues.
Venezuela, meanwhile, is undergoing severe economic and humanitarian crises that observers note are primarily the result of sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies. The Venezuelan opposition, including Guaidó, has supported intensifying those sanctions as a means to force President Nicolas Maduro from power.
Briefing a Flailing Opposition
The briefing note, obtained through an ATIP request, was prepared for Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly ahead of her May 31 meeting with Isadora Zubillaga, the self-described “acting foreign affairs minister” of Venezuela’s so-called “interim government,” which has been trying to seize power for the past four years.
Guaidó appointed himself head of the “interim government” after most of the Venezuelan opposition boycotted the 2018 presidential vote that saw Maduro re-elected for a six-year term. The opposition, which has either boycotted or rejected the results of elections where they were defeated, disavowed Maduro’s victory and instead claimed the presidency was abandoned due to a “fraudulent” vote.
As part of a strategy to oust Maduro from office, the U.S. and its allies, including Canada, recognized Guaidó as president, and used their diplomatic weight to pressure other countries in the region to do the same, with notable exceptions such as regional heavyweight Mexico. Experts have maintained that Guaidó’s claim to power has no constitutional basis.
Joly’s briefing note states that Zubillaga is a co-founder of a group called “Women for Democracy in Venezuela,” which was launched in the fall of 2021. The document notes that the group was created through a project funded by Global Affairs Canada’s (GAC) “Peace and Stabilization Operations Program," which was established in 2016 to “take concrete action to prevent and respond to emerging and ongoing situations of violent conflict and state fragility.”
“[Zubillaga] leads a project (funded by … PSOPs) with Independent Diplomat that seeks to support women’s participation in the ongoing Venezuelan negotiation process,” reads the briefing note, referring to stalled talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition groups. Independent Diplomat is a British non-profit organization that provides advice to non-state groups.
“In the context of this project, participants decided to create the Venezuelan Women for Democracy Movement (WDV),” the note adds. It then explains that Zubillaga was likely to ask for “additional funding and support for the current project managed by Independent Diplomat which led to the Women for Democracy in Venezuela Movement,” adding: “The project ends on June 30, 2022.” It also notes that Zubillaga was likely to ask for Canada’s “continued recognition of the interim government.”
GAC did not respond to questions from The Maple seeking specific information on Canada’s funding for the project. However, buried in a June 10 document outlining Canadian government investments in Latin America and the Caribbean for 2022, the Prime Minister’s Office stated:
“(Canada is) strengthening the Capacities of Women Political Leaders from the Venezuelan Interim Government ($626,895, Independent Diplomat) – To build the leadership capacities of Venezuelan women from the Venezuelan interim government and the opposition-led National Assembly to contribute more actively and effectively to high-level negotiations and advocacy.”
Blacklock’s Reporter first reported this funding in November 2021, although the paywalled story does not appear to mention the funding’s connection to WDV. Two right-wing Canadian media outlets who picked up the story misleadingly suggested the funding was disbursed to support feminism in “socialist Venezuela.”
Almost no online media coverage of WDV mentions the Canadian funding that led to the creation of the group. One article, published by Latina Republic last November, included a tweet from Canada’s World Trade Organization (WTO) mission in Geneva, which noted that it was “proud” to co-sponsor the event at which WDV was created. Similarly, tweets posted by officials at the event on Oct. 21, 2021 thanked the Geneva mission for supporting the event.
A GAC news release regarding Joly’s meeting with Zubillaga in May stated that they discussed “the Women for Democracy in Venezuela Movement and women’s role in building a more inclusive society” and “Canada’s deep concern for the ongoing political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.” The statement was silent on how the crisis has been worsened by sanctions — which Zubillaga supports — and did not mention the Canadian money behind Zubillaga’s group.
What is WDV’s purpose? One of the group’s co-founders, Mariela Magallanes, wrote in May this year that WDV’s membership includes women from the banking, legal and diplomatic sectors. According to its founding document, WDV was created to “focus on amplifying the diverse voices of Venezuelan women who are working to reestablish democracy, stability, and hope.”
However, human rights advocates in Venezuela see the group’s objectives differently.
Ana Barrios, a Venezuelan human rights activist with the Surgentes collective that works to democratize society and strengthen popular power initiatives, told The Maple* that WDV is closely tied to far-right anti-democratic opposition groups, and emerged at a time when those same groups were in a position of weakness inside Venezuela.
The “interim government” led by Guaidó was unable to consolidate power inside the country following his self proclamation as “interim president.” The group of radical political parties that backed Guaidó subsequently turned to increasingly violent plots to oust Maduro from office. In 2019, Guaidó, together with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, promoted an effort to violate Venezuelan borders under the guise of delivering “humanitarian aid.” The plan was subsequently revealed to be part of a strategy by Washington and the Venezuelan right-wing opposition to embarrass Maduro on the international stage.
The opposition leader then led a failed military coup on April 30, 2019 and subsequently backed a calamitous paramilitary invasion using private American contractors who sought to kidnap the Venezuelan president.
In addition to the recent rebuke at the OAS and from his own supporters, Guaidó has lost allies in the region. The “Lima Group,” an ad-hoc coalition of countries led by Canada that since 2017 backed the ouster of Maduro, has become all but defunct.
Guaidó also lost the support of a key regional ally in Colombia after voters in that country ended decades of right-wing rule. Colombian President Gustavo Petro, widely seen as the country’s first leftist president, restored diplomatic and economic ties with the Maduro government in Venezuela.
Regarding Canada’s support for the opposition-linked WDV group, Barrios explained “It is suspicious that money is allocated to an organization that depends on a strategy that is practically exhausted and whose agenda, beyond a founding document, is unknown.”
She added that the “interim government” has not been transparent in demonstrating how its funds from foreign governments are being spent. Julio Borges, a member of the right-wing Justice First party and Zubillaga’s predecessor, resigned his post as Guaidó’s “foreign minister” last December accusing the “interim government” of mismanagement and calling it a “caste” that should “disappear."
“Canadian people should demand to know for what purposes the money given to [WDV] has been used,” said Barrios.
Money Well Spent?
The briefing note indicates that the Canadian government itself was seeking answers about how WDV used Canadian-sponsored resources. It includes a list of questions for Zubillaga, one of which reads: “We would appreciate learning more about the Women for Democracy in Venezuela’s Action Plan, especially if negotiations [between the government and opposition] remain stalled.”
“What are your plans to build bridges with women and men across the political spectrum including people that may be ideologically close to forces currently in power in Venezuela?,” the note asks further.
Despite Canada’s request that WDV embrace a plurality of different political voices in Venezuela, founding members of the group hail largely from right-wing opposition formations.
Leading members include Maria Teresa Belandria, a member of the so-called “interim government” and international co-ordinator of the right-wing Vente Venezuela political party, which has openly supported the idea of foreign military intervention to oust Maduro. Canada’s UN representative in Geneva, Leslie Norton, was also at WDV’s launch event.
Barrios said the group is incapable of representing Venezuelan society beyond a very small group of “upper class” women.
“This initiative, made up of and led by women belonging to the upper classes of Venezuela and linked to the political castes of the Venezuelan oligarchy, without its own agenda, has little to say to the Venezuelan women of the popular sectors who fight everyday against the effects of the sanctions that the aforementioned women promoted, and with whom they have nothing in common and in no way feel moved or represented by them,” said Barrios.
Barrios noted that reports from both the United Nations and independent organizations have shown the devastating impact that unilateral coercive measures have had on the Venezuelan population, especially in regards to economic and social rights.
Last October, a report by the UN Special Rapporteur found that the coercive measures imposed on Venezuela have “exacerbated the pre-existing economic and social crisis and had a devastating effect on the entire population, especially those living in poverty, women, children, older persons, persons with disabilities or life-threatening or chronic diseases, and the indigenous population.”
Barrios said the sanctions “seem … to be a well thought out strategy to produce very adverse and precarious living conditions, to later justify unconventional forms of interference that threaten the self-determination of the Venezuelan people, which is also a human right.”
She explained that groups like WDV lack legitimacy for two reasons: Firstly because they stem from the opposition’s “unconstitutional” strategy of attempting to oust Maduro by force, and secondly because their goals are “contrary to the interests of the poor and excluded women of Venezuela, who are the majority.”
Critics have accused Venezuela’s various opposition groups of operating on an assumption of “racist elitism” for more than two decades.
Venezuela is currently experiencing the largest refugee crisis in Latin America’s recent history, amid economic collapse. Critics say that decline was fomented by a punishing U.S. led sanctions regime that has been described as economic war against Venezuela. The U.S. Treasury Department has specifically targeted the country’s critical oil sector, imposing sanctions that amount to a blockade in an effort to starve the country of income.
In light of the energy crisis prompted by the war in Ukraine, the U.S. has begun pursuing something of a rapprochement with Caracas, sending multiple high-level delegations to negotiate directly with the Maduro government. The talks led to a prisoner swap but have not produced any sanctions relief, although rumours continue to circulate of a broader sanctions waiver for U.S. oil corporation Chevron, which maintains a small operation inside Venezuela.
Barrios said Zubillaga represents political forces that “seek to preserve the control and use of the natural resources of the countries of the South.”
In Canada, advocates have pointed to large Canadian oil and mining assets in Latin America as reasons for this country’s interest in ousting the Maduro government. In 2019, Todd Gordon, assistant professor of law and society at Wilfrid Laurier University told Ricochet: “The ideological commitment of the Canadian government to overthrow Maduro and promote the opposition in the country is because of its neoliberal and reactionary politics.”
“Canada is committed to the assertion of its powers in poorer countries in order to access their resources and labour,” Gordon added.
In addition to counting on the world’s largest proven reserves of oil, Venezuela also has vast mineral wealth, including gold.
Also speaking to Ricochet in 2019, Kirsten Francescone, a co-ordinator with the group MiningWatch, warned that Canada’s moves in Venezuela “could potentially be an opening for Canadian mining companies.”
It is not clear if Canada has continued to financially support WDV since the first round of funding for the project that created it expired at the end of June. The briefing note states that the project “is very much in line with Canada’s feminist foreign and international assistance policy,” but hints that “The Department is currently reviewing its programming priorities.”
“There are different ways of supporting the Women for Democracy in Venezuela Movement, including through advocacy to reinstate the stalled negotiations,” the briefing note continues.
GAC did not respond to questions from The Maple about WDV, but in an emailed statement, sent before news broke of the “interim government’s” impending collapse, doubled down on Canada’s recognition of the opposition group:
“Canada firmly supports Venezuelans in their fight to return democracy and rule of law to their country. This includes continuing to recognize the legitimate National Assembly elected in 2015 and the interim government led by Juan Guaido … Canada, along with much of the international community, strongly supports the Norway-mediated negotiation process taking place in Mexico City and encourages the Maduro delegation to return to these negotiations immediately.”
GAC did not respond to a follow-up request from The Maple asking if Canada’s position on the “interim government” has changed amid the opposition’s withdrawal of support.
Negotiations between the Maduro government and the Venezuelan opposition stalled following the extradition to the U.S. of Colombo-Venezuelan businessman Alex Saab, who the government considers a diplomat. Saab was arrested in Cape Verde in 2020, under disputed circumstances, while en route to Iran to negotiate supplies of food stuffs for the Venezuelan population. Caracas has accused Washington of “kidnapping” the Venezuelan envoy in a politically motivated case and maintains that talks will not resume until he is released.
Canada and the U.S. are among the few remaining countries continuing to recognize Venezuela’s so-called “interim government.” In January 2021, the European Union’s 27 member states stopped recognizing Guaido’s group as Venezuela’s “government.” Guaidó’s rebuke at the OAS, meanwhile, came after the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in December to recognize the credentials of the Maduro government as the legitimate representative of Venezuela, with only 16 countries voting against the recognition.
Ottawa’s Failed Strategy
Maria Páez Victor, a Venezuelan-born sociologist living in Canada, told The Maple that she believes the Trudeau government’s actions in Venezuela and Latin America more generally show it has given up on supporting the idea of state sovereignty in the region.
“They have actually embraced the American foreign policy of regime change,” Victor explained. “They have militantly and actively sought to overthrow the government of Venezuela.”
Victor pointed to Canada’s lead role in the creation of the now-toothless “Lima Group.”
“All of these small opposition groups … have come to Canada, [and] they've all been received with open arms,” said Victor regarding Guaidó’s so-called “interim government.”
“For Venezuela, Zubillaga is nothing,” she added. Guaidó and Leopoldo López, the wealthy leader of the opposition Voluntad Popular (VP) party, supported sanctions on Venezuela that have caused widespread hardship, Victor noted.
“They have been in favour of this terrible suffering that Venezuela has,” she explained, adding that the so-called “interim government’s” current strategy is to try to regain a semblance of legitimacy “through the back door” with groups like WDV.
“They have failed so miserably as an opposition, because they went the illegal way, [and] tried to overthrow a government,” Victor explained, referring to the 2019 and 2020 coup attempts.
“Canada's reputation is below that of the United States, because the United States, they're the big guns; they're the bully; but Canada is the poodle,” she added. “This is a blot on Canadian history, whereby Canada has given up an independent foreign policy.”
Barrios shares that view. “Canada has assumed the role of ‘washing the face’ of the U.S. government, assuming positions and leading spaces such as the Lima Group, which the U.S. government would have found difficult to assume given its long history of interference,” she explained.
Amid a wave of progressive governments winning elections in Latin America, Barrios called on the Canadian government to respond to the political realities in the region and delink its foreign policy from that of the U.S. — or risk isolating itself from Latin America.
“We are witnessing a new wave of progressive or leftist governments in the region that are going to fight together with their peoples for horizontal, fair, democratic and self-determined [societies],” said Barrios. “This context should be the opportunity for Canada to stop being the pawn of the United States in the region.”
Barrios said the recent vote at the OAS shows that times have changed and that Canada should lift its sanctions against Venezuela, and abandon its support for Guaidó and the “interim government.”
Instead, Barrios said Canada should “recognize, beyond the errors and mistakes that the current Venezuelan government may commit, that it is a legitimate and constitutional government and that it is up to Venezuelans to decide their destiny without any type of external interference.”
UPDATE, Oct. 25, 2022, 4:00 p.m. PST: Following the publication of this story, Global Affairs Canada issued the following statement when asked if Canada is still funding the project that created WDV and if it will be amending its position on Juan Guaido's so-called "interim government":
"Canada contributed CAD 626,895.09 to the project [which founded WDV], which was carried out between July 2021 and June 2022 ... Canada firmly supports Venezuelans in their fight for a return to democracy and the rule of law in their country. Canada will continue to work with legitimate political interlocutors while encouraging a full return of democracy through free and fair presidential elections. We remain steadfast in our view that the best way to solve the ongoing crisis is via a negotiated solution led by Venezuelans [Emphasis ours]."
UPDATE, Oct. 26, 2022, 4:20 p.m. PST: In response to a direct follow up question from The Maple seeking clarification regarding GAC's pledge to continue working with "legitimate political interlocutors," GAC stated:
"Canada will continue to work with legitimate political interlocutors, including the interim government led by Juan Guaido."
*Interview translated from original Spanish by José Luis Granados Ceja.
Alex Cosh is the managing editor of The Maple.
José Luis Granados Ceja is a journalist and political analyst based in Mexico City. He is a staff writer with Venezuela Analysis, covering regional and international issues. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights at the Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México.