Welcome to meeting number 14 of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion passed by the committee on October 22, 2020, the committee will proceed to a briefing session on the current situation in Venezuela.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I would encourage all participants to please mute their microphone when they are not speaking and address all comments through the chair.
When you have 30 seconds remaining in your questioning or speaking time, I will signal you visually with this piece of paper.
Interpretation is available through the globe icon on the bottom of your screen.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. We have with us this afternoon Michael Grant, assistant deputy minister for the Americas, and Sara Cohen, director general, South America and inter-American affairs.
We also welcome Mr. Claude Beauséjour, director of the Venezuela task force.
Welcome to the committee.
Mr. Grant, I understand you have a statement.
The floor is yours, sir, for seven minutes.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you for this very timely opportunity to provide an update on the situation in Venezuela, including an overview of the political and economic situation as well as humanitarian efforts to address the crisis.
As mentioned, with me today is the director general for South America and inter-American affairs, Sara Cohen, and the director of the Venezuela task force, Claude Beauséjour.
Venezuela's slide into turmoil began with and has remained centred on an erosion of democracy. Nicolás Maduro became president in 2013 in an election that was deemed free and fair. Since then, when public opinion and political fortunes went against him, a series of measures have served as the foundation of the crisis we see today.
In 2015, the opposition took control of the National Assembly in free and fair democratic elections. In 2017, Maduro created a parallel legislature, the constituent assembly, which he used to sidestep the legitimate National Assembly. In 2018, he advanced the presidential elections, which were neither free nor fair.
In 2020, in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections, the pro-Maduro Supreme Court stripped the National Assembly of its authority to appoint an independent electoral council and appointed a new pro-Maduro electoral council and a pro-regime ad hoc board of directors. It replaced the administrative leaders of three of Venezuela's four main opposition parties, continued to hold opposition members in prison, and tightly controlled the messaging of domestic media. It also added an additional 100 seats to the National Assembly within 90 days of the election, in violation of the Venezuelan constitution.
Amid this chaos, the regime went ahead with legislative elections on December 6, 2020, which were boycotted by the democratic opposition. In response, and in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution, the National Assembly democratically elected in 2015 extended its mandate until January 2022, or until free and fair presidential and parliamentarian elections are held in 2021. It will not continue as a plenary, but via a “delegated committee”.
Canada announced that it would continue to recognize the National Assembly democratically elected in 2015 as the legitimate legislature, and its president, as the interim President of Venezuela.
In the day-to-day, the regime controls Venezuela's political narrative by silencing all opposition and the free press, and maintains command of the military by permitting it to engage in lucrative illicit activity.
We are also witnessing an economic catastrophe. A few economic figures illustrate the scale of the crisis and its human impact. Since 2013, Venezuela's real GDP has contracted by 80%. By the end of 2020, oil production, which used to account for more than 90% of exports, fell to a 75-year low, with an average of 370,000 barrels per day, from a peak production of 3.5 million barrels per day in 2002. Hyperinflation reached 20,000% in 2020, rendering the local bolivar currency nearly useless.
The impacts of this crisis are multi-dimensional and have resulted in a large-scale humanitarian and human rights crisis. With over 5.4 million Venezuelans having fled their country, this is by far the largest migration crisis the region has witnessed, second only to Syria globally, with a trajectory to surpass it by the end of 2021.
The impact of this migration on neighbouring countries is very serious and is compounded by COVID-19. Venezuelans lack access to basic commodities and services. Minimum wage in Venezuela currently sits at around $2 U.S. per month. The cost of living is at least 10 times higher. One in three Venezuelans—or 9.3 million people—is food-insecure; 96% of Venezuelans live in poverty, and 79% live in extreme poverty, meaning they do not earn enough to purchase basic household goods.
These conditions only continue to worsen, exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.
In addition to the dire humanitarian situation, the violations of human rights that occur every day in Venezuela are startling. The UN fact-finding mission on Venezuela published its report in September 2020, confirming that the Maduro regime has systematically committed crimes against humanity since at least 2014. This includes extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture and sexual violence at the hands of state forces.
This is consistent with the OAS' May 2018 report, which was co-authored by Canada's former justice minister Irwin Cotler. The findings in that report served as the basis for referral to the International Criminal Court by Canada and five other Lima Group members in September 2018. The bottom line of the fact-finding mission report is that this crisis urgently needs to be addressed, and a transition to democracy in Venezuela must be the foundation for that to happen.
Lima Group members were instrumental in securing the extension of the mandate of the fact-finding mission for another two years, until October 2022. These human rights violations have continued in recent months, as demonstrated by the regime's recent crackdowns on civil society organizations and independent media.
Addressing the Venezuela crisis is a foreign policy priority for Canada.
In 2017, Canada played a leading role in creating the Lima Group, a regional grouping that aims to restore democracy in Venezuela. Canada is seen as a valued convenor to bridge the positions and actions of key actors, including the European Union or the EU-led International Contact Group, the United States, and Lima Group members, as well as others, driving—
First, it's important to go back in time just a little, to the end of the legitimate term of Nicolás Maduro. As I mentioned, he was legitimately elected in 2013 and his term ended at the end of 2018, in January 2019.
The elections that he had advanced and held in 2018 were seen by the democratic forces in Venezuela and by the international community as not being free and fair, and therefore, when his legitimate term ended, the Venezuelan constitution dictated that the interim president should be the president or the speaker of the National Assembly. That was Juan Guaidó, and that began in 2019.
If we go forward to December of last year, illegitimate National Assembly elections were held by the Maduro regime, not recognized by Canada and the majority of the international community.
Following that event, the legitimate National Assembly, led by Juan Guaidó, passed a resolution saying that because there had not been legitimate elections, their mandate would continue. They have taken the form of what's called a “delegated committee” and Juan Guaidó continues as the interim president.
It is our view that Juan Guaidó is the legitimate interim president of Venezuela, and Canada has recognized him as such.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I would like to thank the witnesses for being with us today and for enlightening us on the situation in Venezuela. Indeed, it is an extremely complex situation, and the varied reactions of the entire international community in this regard demonstrates this.
My concern—let me put it bluntly—is that the position of Canada and the recent members of the Lima Group rests on an increasingly shaky basis, given that since the election took place in 2015, this assembly was to be dissolved in December 2020.
On the one hand, I question the fact that we continue to support a leader who no longer has the democratic legitimacy to pursue his mandate. On the other hand, I see that not only is the support of the Venezuelan people for Mr. Guaidó diminishing, but also that important international bodies, such as the European Union, are beginning to distance themselves from him.
Isn't Canada just supporting a straw man?
To take up the question asked by Mr. Chong, how long do we think we will be able to hold this position, which seems to me to be more and more untenable?
Let me go through it again in order.
First of all, I think it is correct, as most of the international community has done so far, to say that the last election may not seem very legitimate given the conditions in which it took place. Having said that—again, perhaps you should shed more light on the constitutional context of Venezuela—how can we recognize the elected representatives of an assembly that, in any case, should have been dissolved in December 2020?
What is the democratic legitimacy of this assembly that, theoretically, no longer exists? Moreover, as I mentioned, support for Mr. Guaidó among the Venezuelan population is far from assured. Rather, it seems that he has been gradually abandoned, not only by the Venezuelan population, but also by a number of traditional allies on the international scene, including the European Union, indeed.
That's how we got to where we are, but that term of office expired. Now we have some Internet committee set up of delegates only decided on by the opposition—that no one else participated in—claiming to be a legitimate government.
If we want to see a situation where the Venezuelan people have a say in the future, having the international community or parts of it propping up one side and meanwhile ignoring the humanitarian crisis within Venezuela and for those who have left.... It seems to me that this is not a pathway to a negotiated solution. I think it's time, perhaps, that Canada and other countries started finding other ways to assist the situation in Venezuela.
Let me give one example. You talked about the economic conditions in Venezuela and the humanitarian crisis, but you didn't mention the effect of the sanctions on that humanitarian crisis. I don't mean the Canadian ones, because the Canadian ones are aimed at individuals—quite legitimately, by the way. I have no quarrel with that, and the International Criminal Court is pursuing and should continue to pursue the criminal acts that it has under view.
However, I think the strategy of what Mr. Trump called “maximum pressure” on the Venezuelans by oil embargo and other economic sanctions has exacerbated and affected—as the Washington Office on Latin America has said—the most vulnerable Venezuelans. The foreign currency revenues have dropped, of course. Oil production has dropped because they don't have any customers, and this is not achieving the results that the United States had hoped for.
Perhaps another strategy is in order.
I would agree with you that, in the last few years, the international community has failed. We have put a lot of effort into this, and the situation in Venezuela has gotten worse. We are no closer to a political solution. I think we have to be honest about that.
With regard to the legitimacy issue, I think, from a Canadian perspective, we believe the way out of this crisis is a negotiated solution by all of the parties that leads to a full return of democracy. The conditions for democratic elections in Venezuela don't exist, and that was proven in December. When that happened, the legitimate National Assembly decided to take action, and it decided, basing itself on the Venezuelan constitution, to extend its mandate for one year to create this committee. In Canada's view, we believe that it followed the constitution, and we continue to support that.
Is this a sustainable situation? Absolutely not. We need to get back to finding a solution.
With regard to the issue of the humanitarian situation and the economic situation, I think we have to recall what the genesis of Venezuela's decline is.
It's a very good question, and you're absolutely right. It is the second-largest migrant crisis, and it could very well be the first by the end of this year. If you look at a per capita basis in terms of funding, it is dramatically too low.
Canada has been contributing. We are one of the largest donors, focusing a lot of our effort on supporting the migrant populations that have left Venezuela. As you can imagine, operating within Venezuela is a little bit difficult. We have had some small humanitarian projects, but even those actors within Venezuela are doing so in very difficult circumstances. There had been an agreement between the regime and interim president Guaidó for the delivery of aid coordinated by the United States. Some of it has worked. Some of it hasn't. We have concerns about what the regime is doing, but more is needed.
In terms of Canada, what I want to mention is that, in June of this year, will host a conference of solidarity for Venezuelan migrants and refugees. This will be the third, and Canada took on the leadership last summer, specifically because we feel that more is needed to support Venezuelan migrants who have fled their country. We are also the chair of a process called the Group of Friends of the Quito Process. The Quito Process is the group of countries that have been the recipients of Venezuelan migrants. The Group of Friends is the group of donor countries that work very closely with those recipients to see what more can be done.
I agree completely with you that more is needed, and Canada is taking a clear leadership role.
Everyone has talked about the humanitarian aid. I would like to point out that Trinidad and Tobago, where I come from, is 80 miles away, by sea, from Venezuela. There are very close relationships there, and I grew up knowing those relationships. Fifty-five million dollars may not sound like a lot of money to Canadians, but when you look at the exchange, if you gave $55 million to Trinidad and Tobago, you would have to multiply it by six with the exchange. That comes up to about $350 million. We need to remember what the costs are in that region, what you can buy in that region and what you can do in that region with $55 million.
I'm not saying $55 million is enough, and I think we should look at how we do it, but the important thing about getting money into aid is how we get that money to the people and not to a regime that can take it and do what it wishes with it.
That's my first question; it's about humanitarian aid. What bothers me the most here, however, is that we reference Europe and we reference Syria. Europe and Syria are obviously close by. Everybody's concerned with Syria.
Nobody thinks about it, but Canada has a stake in this for another reason: Geopolitically, we do not want China and Russia to be playing a role. The United States' history has always been to go in and forget the sovereignty and put their own leader in. We don't want to do that either, but we are in the OAS. Whatever happens in that region is going to impact us greatly.
I think we need to talk a little more—and I'd like to hear from you—about where we lie geopolitically. Europe is very far away and couldn't care less, I'm sorry to say, about what's going on in Venezuela; they care more about Syria because it's on their doorstep. I would really like to know, however, how geopolitically we're going to look at the OAS itself—its strength, its integrity, the fact that many countries in the OAS are walking away from democracy. How are we going to make sure that the security of the OAS region is really considered by Canada? The U.S. and Canada are the only two countries, recently, that have democratic processes going on in our countries.
I'd like to hear about the political issue here.
Thank you very much for the question.
I agree with you completely on the geopolitical importance of Venezuela. Within the hemisphere, as I think everyone will recall, it was 20 years ago that Canada led the hemisphere in creating the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Since then, there has been progress and there have been setbacks. Venezuela is the greatest setback, but there have been others. I would say that in the last year, actually, in the region there have been more upsides than downsides in terms of democracy.
Looking forward, we believe that the OAS and all of its member states have a critical role to play, and we are working very hard to see the Venezuela issue addressed through the OAS.
At the same time, while we believe that this is an issue of the hemisphere and the nations of the hemisphere need to address it, we don't think there's a monopoly on it either. I think Europeans—
If we go back a few years, one of the reasons the Lima Group was created was that we hit a stalemate within the OAS. It was completely split on how to deal with Venezuela.
One thing we've been working on is to try to improve the dialogue of countries that have slightly different points of view. For example, the Caribbean has been, for the most part, either agnostic or somewhat supportive of Maduro.
That's not across the board. There are a few countries that are members of the Lima Group. Canada, however, has gone to great pains to create bridges for dialogue between Caribbean countries and Guaidó, and between them and the supporters of Guaidó, to try to improve the understanding.
A resolution was passed at the last General Assembly, including on the conditions for elections. We think that was an important step forward.
We think that addressing the humanitarian issue within the OAS is important as well. It is going to take all members of the OAS to engage, as with others, to try to find a solution.
Thank you very much, Mr. Grant, for the questions you've answered. I believe I'll be the last questioner. As a wrap-up, I also want to give you the opportunity to put on the table anything we may have missed, any important questions that need to be answered. I'd like you to be able to inform the committee on them.
Mr. Grant, during a committee meeting on February 27, 2019, you stated, “We have some experience with local NGOs, but the necessary conditions aren't in place to facilitate the use of this funding.” That's a quote from you in reference to the $55 million, at the time, which we've spoken about. We've put in another $18 million for basic needs for the most vulnerable people in the area through those neighbouring countries.
With that commitment of support to Venezuela, have there been any improvements to infrastructure so they are able to support the funding we are sending? Can you explain that?
That's a very good question.
First, our total assistance to date is $87 million. That's where we're at right now.
In terms of support inside Venezuela, this is something that has been very difficult. We have been able to work with some local NGOs, NGOs that advocate for human rights, as well as look at health services and things like that. Unlike other places, we're just very careful about stating publicly who they are. There is a real risk that they will be targeted, so we're very careful about that. In the humanitarian space, we have also worked with others, some of the more well-known international humanitarian organizations, and even they have requested that we not speak publicly about the work they're doing, which allows them to carry on their work.
I mentioned earlier that there had been an agreement between the Maduro regime, the interim government of Juan Guaidó and the United Nations for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. It was also with the Pan American Health Organization. There has been some limited success there. There has been the ability to get some supplies in, but as of late, as of the last few weeks, the regime has put up some additional roadblocks.
We hope it continues, because it's badly needed. We are also looking at options to see whether there is a way for Canada to contribute to that. You can understand that it's a bit of a risky business. Working with some of the UN agencies and well-known humanitarian organizations gives us some comfort, but it is very difficult to operate in that environment. At the same time, the needs outside, with the 5.4 million Venezuelans, are extremely acute, and I think that is why the majority of our funding has gone to support their situation.
Thank you very much, Mr. Grant and Mr. Fonseca.
Colleagues, that takes us to the end of our scheduled briefing with Global Affairs colleagues on Venezuela. I would like to thank them on our collective behalf.
Mr. Grant, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Beauséjour, we thank you very much for your testimony, and above all, for your work.
With that, we will suspend, to reconvene in a few moments in camera for some committee business. Thank you, everybody.
[Proceedings continue in camera]