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To help Venezuela, the international community needs to change its strategy

Masaya Llavaneras Blanco is a PhD candidate in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs/Wilfrid Laurier University. Antulio Rosales is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo.

On Thursday,Oct. 26, the Canadian government hosted the third meeting of the Lima Group – an informal gathering of governments in the Western hemisphere concerned with the critical situation in Venezuela. The ministers of Foreign Affairs of Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico and Paraguay joined Chrystia Freeland in Toronto as part of a regional discussion about the deepening crisis in the country.

Despite facing the worst economic troubles in recent history, Venezuela's ruling Socialist Party won a surprising victory in the Oct. 15 regional elections, taking 18 out of 23 gubernatorial seats.

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Opposition forces had called on voters to go to the polls even in the midst of unequal funding conditions, arbitrary judiciary measures (such as barring opposition leaders from competing) and overall electoral bias that seemed to suggest the elections were rigged.

The Lima Group did not recognize the results, stating "various obstacles, acts of intimidation, manipulation and irregularities that characterized the elections."

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's regime is undergoing a process of authoritarian stabilization. Nevertheless, the economic and social crisis only worsens and pushes hundreds out of the country.

The Toronto declaration of the Lima Group emphasized the need to open a humanitarian channel given the growing levels of malnutrition and scarcity of medicines. The declaration went further, stating concern for the growing Venezuelan diaspora. In recent years, Venezuela has become a country of emigrants, fleeing to neighbouring Colombia, Brazil, and Panama, all of which are participants of the Lima Group. This growing number of Venezuelan migrants have become a social and political concern for their national constituencies.

Ms. Freeland stated in a parallel event that Canada is back in the international arena and that its role in the Venezuelan crisis is part of this return. For Ms. Freeland, it is in Canada's self-interest to defend the rule of law regionally in a global context of growing authoritarianism. Canada believes in multilateralism and in the need for supporting a Venezuelan-led political solution.

Despite international efforts, the ruling government's electoral victory still ended up being politically effective. In addition to strengthening its power, it helped to legitimize the National Constituent Assembly, a pro-government supra-constitutional body created to override the opposition-controlled legislature. The Constituent Assembly demanded to swear in all elected governors as a condition for them to take office. Four out of five opposition governors gave into the demand, granting legitimacy to the Constituent Assembly, something that the vast majority of the international community had not done. Thus, the government further divided the already fragmented opposition coalition.

While the implosion of the opposition hampers a democratic advance in the country, the international community must continue to support a Venezuelan-led political solution in Venezuela. Pushing for the immediate opening of a humanitarian channel and recognizing the needs of Venezuelan emigrants in the region is an important first step. Most of the current strategies revolve around targeted sanctions against government figures and their allies. Yet, the Maduro regime has only tightened its grip on power since sanctions were applied. Canada and the Lima Group need to productively engage in a multilateral strategy that includes Caribbean countries – currently supportive of Mr. Maduro – to force a credible negotiation between government and opposition. The Group's call for the United Nations system and its secretary-general's involvement in the crisis is crucial in that regard.

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Canada needs to give way to a plurality of voices from Venezuelan civil society beyond the highly visible political prisoner, Leopoldo Lopez, and lend an ear to advocates of diverse democratic forces in the country.

Furthermore, the Trudeau government must warn Canadian mining companies that investing in Venezuela's new mining projects goes against Canada's foreign policy efforts. Such investments have not been approved by the Venezuelan National Assembly as mandated by the constitution, nor have they been subject to prior and informed consent from affected communities.

Canada can be a positive force for nations resisting the spread of authoritarianism, as a leading voice in defence of multilateralism, the rule of law, and effective dialogue.

Spain's Rajoy urges calm after Senate approves direct rule over Catalonia (Reuters)
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