Joel Bakan once noted that Canadians export two things of reasonable quality and in reasonable quantity:
- Hockey Players; and
- Criticism of the United States
We Canadians tend to do a good job of pointing out the U.S.’s awful role in subverting democratically-elected governments and democratic movements around the world (Indonesia, Italy, Iran, Iraq, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam, Panama, Haiti and Grenada to name just a few, come to mind). However, we don’t like to look at ourselves in the same kind of critical light.
The Revolution Will Not Be Destabilized
Ottawa’s democracy promoters target Venezuela
As the country closer geographically, economically and militarily to the US than any other, Canada has often seen her foreign policy aspirations circumscribed by the whims of the world’s lone Superpower.
Part of the ‘hidden wiring’ of the US-Canada relationship is premised on the belief that there is a role for Canada in places where the US carries a lot of counter-productive baggage. New records obtained by The Dominion show just how actively intertwined Canada’s foreign policy is with the US-led ‘democracy’ promotion project in Venezuela.
Successive Canadian governments, beginning with Paul Martin’s Liberals and gaining momentum under Harper’s Tory minorities, have pushed full steam ahead with efforts to expand Canada’s democracy promotion efforts globally. Canadian leadership in the regime change and military occupation of Haiti (2004-present) gave rise to a renewed emphasis on Canada as an emerging power, an idea fomented by the Harper government.
Democracy promotion is seldom discussed in the Canadian public sphere, even though it has been the subject of a multitude of federal-level conferences, reports and parliamentary hearings over the last five years. Over that same period, Canada has increasingly been integrating its instruments of democracy promotion with those of the US.
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama quietly pledged to increase funding for the controversial National Endowment for Democracy (NED), despite scaling back the rhetoric used to describe continuing US aims to promote global, Western-style democracy. Obama has already fulfilled this pledge.
His Omnibus Appropriations Act allocates $115 million for NED’s operations, increasing by $35 million the amount requested by Bush for 2009. All told, the requested 2009 budget for US democracy programs is the highest ever, at $1.72 billion. By contrast, Canada spent upwards of $650 million on democracy promotion in 2008.
The NED was formed in 1983 as a new tool to advance US foreign policy and business interests around the world. Nominally independent, NED receives the majority of its budget from Congress and each of its grants must be approved by the US State Department.
“One of the NED’s first major successes…was helping to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua,” wrote journalist Bart Jones in his authoritative biography of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. According to Jones, a couple of decades later, “the NED was rapidly infiltrating [Venezuelan] society in a way reminiscent of the Nicaragua experience.” Channelling money and resources to opposition NGOs has been a prime strategy of the NED in Venezuela.
Following a short-lived coup d’etat against Chavez in April 2002, Venezuelan-American attorney Eva Golinger and investigative journalist Jeremy Bigwood obtained a treasure trove of documents through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. These documents, released in conjunction with Golinger’s 2004 book, The Chavez Code: Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela, exposed the NED’s active role in the attempted subversion of Venezuela’s democracy.
One of several Canadian NGOs whose activities are complementary to those of the NED is the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL). Established by the Mulroney government in the 1990s, FOCAL is almost entirely dependent on government funding and is accountable to parliament.
A 2004 evaluation of FOCAL conducted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) stated:
Stakeholders from every sector, and from the academic community in particular, indicated that FOCAL is already perceived as ‘the right arm of the government,’ echoing the perspective and beliefs of its funding bodies, rather than a truly independent, non-governmental organization.
“The US has been using Canadian and European foundations more frequently in recent years to filter funding to Venezuelan and other NGOs, and political parties that promote their mutual interests,” said Golinger, whose most recent book is The Imperial Web: Encyclopedia of Interference and Subversion. “It’s a way of covering up US meddling and making the sources of foreign funding for political objectives more difficult to detect. Canada has been a major ally of the US in this respect, particularly in the case of Venezuela.”
Negative perceptions of the US indicate the necessity of “shifting responsibility for the [democracy] campaign to more local actors or other Western allies,” wrote Raymond Gastil, one of the theoreticians behind the US shift to democracy promotion, in 1988.
Although far from the first such instance, Canada began to adopt this notion of “responsibility” towards Venezuela in January 2005. DFAIT invited the head of a key opposition group in Venezuela, Sumate’s Maria Corina Machado, to meet Ottawa lawmakers and officials, as well as to give a briefing on political rights in Venezuela.
Machado openly supported the 2002 coup against Chavez. In 2004, she was charged with conspiracy to commit treason for allegedly using NED funds to campaign against Chavez in a recall referendum organized by the opposition.
According to records obtained by The Dominion via an Access to Information request, in 2005 FOCAL’s chairman, John Graham, joined Machado for a high-level meeting Washington, D.C. In attendance were former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Roger Noriega. “An exchange of ideas as regards the relationships between the civil society and the governments for the strengthening of democracy in the region,” was the stated purpose of the meeting.
Shortly after Graham’s meeting with Rice and Machado, the NED approved a $94,516 grant for FOCAL to carry out democracy promotion work in and around Venezuela.
Using the NED funds, FOCAL was to commission a series of papers and organize a number of meetings in Ottawa, Venezuela and Ecuador “to discuss how to better collaborate in promoting an informed civil society that can strengthen democracy in the region.”
But after Harper’s Conservatives took power in early 2006, FOCAL abruptly cancelled the activities that were supposed to take place in Venezuela.
“After discussing this project with various people…[we] came to the conclusion that it was not in anybody’s interest to organize such an activity while being financially associated with the NED,” reads a heavily censored memo sent by DFAIT official Flavie Major in July 2006.
“Since the project was originally drafted, the internal context in Venezuela has shifted, as has the domestic context in Canada, which could potentially alter the priority and focus of Canada’s engagement in Venezuela,” states a separate document obtained through a US FOIA request.
An example of the changing political context in Venezuela is the 2006 draft of the Law on International Co-operation, which limits the ability of local NGOs to receive funding from foreign governments. Although the law has yet to be enacted, Western-backed NGOs and their donors have launched a campaign to “push back” against what they describe as a “backlash” against democracy promoters in the region.
By late 2006, the Conservatives proclaimed that democracy promotion was a “fundamental part” of Canadian foreign policy objectives and “an eminently worthy and intrinsically Canadian endeavour.” One indication of the Conservative’s commitment was seen in the appointment of a former NED board member as a top advisor to Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay.
In late 2007, the Canadian government gave the NED $198,168 to produce a major report, which was entitled “Defending Civil Society: A Report of the World Movement for Democracy.” The report attacks Venezuela for its efforts to limit Western-funded manipulation of its internal politics:
Venezuela’s would-be caudillo Hugo Chavez has a peculiar notion of democracy. His ‘Bolivarian revolution’ appears to be based on Chavista [sic] monopolizing the country’s political institutions, from an absence of parliamentary opposition to a hand-picked judiciary. In these circumstances…civil society provides the only countervailing power to the Chavista state and to Chavez’s Castroite aspirations.
DFAIT seems to have based their own talking points on Venezuela around the NED’s line. In an e-mail statement to The Dominion, a spokesperson for Canadian Minister of State for Latin America Peter Kent wrote: “Hugo Chavez has a history of weakening democratic institutions. Minister Kent is committed to furthering the government’s Americas strategy, which is dedicated to promoting and enhancing democracy, freedom and the rule of law.”
When asked to substantiate a claim about Chavez’s anti-democratic tendencies, Kent’s spokesperson stated: “Hugo Chavez has a history of concentrating power in the Executive which has undermined democratic institutions in Venezuela. Since taking office a decade ago, we’ve seen the politicization of the judiciary and harassment by government officials of the state-controlled media and NGOs.”
One of the ways that Canada has tried to avoid drawing attention to its support for the Venezuelan opposition and collaboration with the NED is by carrying out activities outside of Venezuela and co-ordinating them through embassies. Indeed, such methods have a theoretical basis that Canada helped design.
In conjunction with the NED-linked Council for a Community of Democracies and the US State Department, in April 2008 DFAIT contributed $70,000 in financing to the publication of A Diplomat’s Handbook for Democracy Development Support.
Canada has one of the few foreign services that trains diplomats in democracy promotion. The US Foreign Service Institute has already ordered at least 400 copies of the handbook, which aims to provide diplomats with “encouragement, counsel and a greater capacity to support democrats everywhere.”
“We have over many, many years and will continue to work with the United States in this regard in advancing our common goals, certainly to the benefit of both countries and to the benefit of the world in general,” said Canada’s Consul-General in New York, Dan Sullivan, during a launch event for the handbook in early 2008.
One example of the handbook in action is Canada’s funding of the Venezuelan NGO Justice and Development Consortium (Asociación Civil Consorcio Desarrollo y Justicia). This group, which also receives funding from the NED, has made a name for itself by working to unite reactionary opposition movements throughout Latin America.
In November 2007, DFAIT gave the Justice and Development Consortium $94,580 “to consolidate and expand the democracy network in Latin America and the Caribbean” at an assembly held in Panama City in the spring of 2008. This meeting, co-hosted by the Canadian Embassy in Panama and the NED, attracted prominent members of (often NED-funded) opposition movements in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and Ecuador. It was convened in response to “the usher[ing] in [of] a new era of populism and authoritarianism in Latin America.”
Flying in the face of the North American interpretation of Venezuelan democracy is the latest report by the non-partisan Chilean Latinobarometro, which shows that 79 per cent of Venezuelans polled are satisfied with their democracy.
“Venezuela has a poor image in the rest of the world…but the perception of Venezuelans is positive,” states the report. “They say they like their democracy as it is now, or, at least, much more than the citizens of other countries like their democracies which, by contrast, are not criticized by the outside world for lack of freedom and harassment of institutions.”
Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Chile are considered Canada’s strongest allies in the region and are also countries where people’s support for their government tends to be lower than it is in Venezuela. The subversion of Venezuelan democracy and the laissez-faire attitude towards the regimes of Felipe Caldéron in Mexico, Alan Garcia in Peru and Álvaro Uribe in Colombia demonstrates that building popular democracies is not the sought-after end result of democracy promotion activities.
The governments of Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Chile have already entered into Free-Trade deals with Canada and each receives high levels of Canadian outward foreign direct investment, particularly in the extractive sector.
Canadian trade with Venezuela is second only to trade with Brazil in South and Central America. Venezuela is the tenth-largest provider of Canada’s considerable foreign oil needs. In 2008, Canada imported $1.36 billion worth of Venezuelan crude. The North Atlantic Refinery in Newfoundland, home of Premier Danny “Chavez” Williams, refines the oil.
Anthony Fenton is an independent researcher and journalist based in British Columbia. He has travelled to Venezuela several times. Some material in this article is drawn from a forthcoming book on Canadian foreign policy. He can be contacted at fentona[at]shaw.ca.