Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is beset by scandal. He is accused of interfering in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec-based engineering firm and major employer. The controversy has erased the Liberal Party’s lead over the rival Conservatives in this year’s election campaign. But Trudeau’s popularity is not the only victim of the affair. His political troubles have distracted the prime minister from the deepening Venezuela crisis, just as Canada was showing a willingness to shape the international response.
Prior to the SNC scandal, Canada, a founding member of the Lima Group, was at the forefront of regional efforts to bring about a peaceful and democratic transition in Venezuela.
Ottawa rarely wades deeply into Latin American controversies. But this time around, Trudeau was a key actor. Unlike the Trump administration, Trudeau’s approach was in line with the majority of the countries of the region that are committed to a non-military path away from President Nicolás Maduro’s rule.
In February, after an international humanitarian convoy failed to enter Venezuela, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a bellicose speech to the Lima Group in Bogotá, repeating Trump’s threat that “all options are on the table.” By contrast, the Lima Group -- an informal collection of Latin American governments and Canada created to address the Venezuela crisis -- rejected the U.S. approach, saying any transition should be “conducted by Venezuelans themselves, peacefully and within the framework of the constitution and international law.”
That was consistent with Canada’s posture: aggressively pro-sanctions, but resolutely against military action. After the Bogotá summit, Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said that Ottawa was coordinating with allies to give sanctions against Maduro “more bite.” On Monday, Canada announced new sanctions against 43 Venezuelans.
Indeed, before the SNC scandal, Canada was a leading voice in the hemisphere on this issue.
Earlier in February, Lima Group foreign ministers gathered in frigid Ottawa to discuss the future of Venezuela -- and witness Canada’s announcement of tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid. Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó participated by videoconference.
Despite their interest in the subject, President Trump and his saber-rattling aides were absent.
That was probably by design. Given the history of U.S. interventions in Latin America, and Trump’s unpopularity in the region, White House leadership on the Venezuela crisis has always sparked a mix of reactions and results. Trudeau had no such baggage.
For that reason, from the start of the latest push against Maduro, Canada has been a critical and underappreciated actor.
Last May, after Maduro won a second term in a fraudulent election, Canada rejected the results, which Freeland dismissed as a “caricature of democracy.”
Prior to Maduro’s January inauguration, Canada joined a Lima Group declaration that formally rejected Maduro’s second term, demanded new elections, threatened sanctions, and called on Maduro to resign.
Days later, when Guaidó, the National Assembly leader, declared himself interim president -- citing a constitutional provision regarding presidential vacancies -- Canada promptly offered its support, triggering a cascade of global recognition for Guaidó.
Today, dozens of democratic governments consider Guaidó to be Venezuela’s rightful leader, including Great Britain, France and Germany. But at the time, Canada’s decision was bold and consequential -- an expression of support from one of the world’s most respected democracies, and evidence that Guaidó was not merely a U.S. puppet.
Trudeau was regarded as one of the few principled and liberal leaders still standing, as he demonstrated in his feud with Saudi Arabia over its imprisonment of a human rights activist. But the SNC affair has distracted his administration and muddied his credentials as a defender of the rule of law and liberal values.
Even before the scandal, Canada’s role in the international response to Venezuela was not without blemish. Trudeau had been unwilling to offer refuge to many Venezuelans, even as the number of those displaced by the crisis exceeded 3 million. It may reach 5 million this year. (Trudeau’s government recently announced plans to limit asylum claims and increase border security.)
Still, Canada’s rapidly decreasing profile on Venezuela is a great loss. Without Trudeau, the international coalition will be increasingly subject to the White House’s pressure tactics, including threats of a military intervention. Over time, that could fracture the coalition and help Maduro portray his repressive regime as a victim of foreign aggression.
Fortunately, Canada need not retreat entirely. Freeland is a capable diplomat and rising star in the Liberal Party. She is well positioned to maintain Canada’s leadership and help prevent Maduro from branding the international response as a hostile ideological campaign.
Benjamin N. Gedan is a former South America director on the National Security Council and the senior adviser to the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Nicolás Saldías is a researcher at the Wilson Center. The views expressed are the authors’ own.