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The Venezuelan people are dying in the streets again

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Pictures form protests in Caracas, Venezuela. February 2014.

"The Venezuelan people are again dying in the streets as they battle an on-going coup d'état being carried out by a group of politicians who oppose our government, and who since April 19, have been carrying out acts of violence, killing people and destroying our national patrimony, just as they did in 2002 and 2014."

These are the words of Bishop Elida Quevedo of the Evangelical Pentecostal Union of Venezuela (UEPV), but hers is not a story that you will see in major media. Instead, facts are distorted to make it appear that it is government forces who repress a "pro-democracy" movement. Bishop Quevedo goes on to describe the April 20 attack by anti-government activists on a maternal and child hospital, and sniper shootings of pro-government demonstrators and security forces.

As a coalition of Canadian civil society organizations long engaged in solidarity, social justice and development work in the Americas, we call for a more even-handed approach to issues in Venezuela than that shown recently by Canada and several other members of the Organization of American States (OAS).

Since early April, opponents of the government of President Nicolás Maduro have participated in demonstrations -- some of them peaceful, but many that have included acts of vandalism, arson, and attacks on security forces. Protests began after the Supreme Court suspended some powers of the opposition-dominated National Assembly after it refused to comply with court rulings on electoral corruption and foreign investment. Even though the court decision was almost immediately rescinded, protests continued.

Since then, as many as 37 people have been killed, but government forces are not responsible for the majority of these deaths. In cases where public security forces have been linked to violence, investigations are carried out and in some cases, charges filed. The dead include trade union leader Esmin Ramírez, killed after being kidnapped April 23 in the southeastern state of Bolívar, and Jacqueline Ortega, an organizer of an alternative food distribution program in greater Caracas.

Clearly, the situation in Venezuela is marked by polarization. But instead of building bridges to enable dialogue between the government and sectors of the opposition that reject violence, the government of Canada and the House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights have echoed the voice of the OAS secretary general, Luis Almagro, and taken up the cause of the hardline opposition.

On March 28, Almagro had pressed the OAS permanent council to expel Venezuela from the organization. When it was evident he could not rally a majority of members to apply the OAS Democratic Charter against Venezuela, the session ended without a vote.

But on April 3, without the presence of either Bolivia (president of the OAS Permanent Council) or Haiti (the vice-president), just 15 of the 35 members (including Canada) approved a resolution "by consensus" -- despite opposition from four other members -- declared an "alteration of the constitutional order" in Venezuela and resolved to "urge action by the Venezuelan government to safeguard the separation and independence of powers."

On April 28, Venezuela served notice that it would begin a two-year process to withdraw from the OAS. With regard to Venezuela, the OAS has consistently failed to fulfil its role as a space for multilateral dialogue to resolve conflicts.

In challenging Venezuela's democracy, Canada has aligned itself with the governments of Colombia, Mexico and Honduras -- all of which face serious human rights issues themselves -- plus several others, including Brazil which, after the removal last year of the democratically-elected president, is also facing waves of popular protest.

The government of Canada should make clear its support for constitutional government, electoral democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela. It could support a mediation initiative led by former heads of government from Panama, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Spain. This initiative proposed last year by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and has sparked the interest of Pope Francis.

Canada should condemn foreign intervention in Venezuela's internal affairs via the funding and training of groups and individuals seeking regime change through violence or other unconstitutional means, and support dialogue as the only appropriate means of achieving peace and reconciliation in Venezuela.

Jim Hodgson is a member of Common Frontiers, a Canadian civil society coalition on trade justice issues. Steve Stewart is executive director of CoDevelopment Canada, a Vancouver-based international development agency. 

An edited version of this was published in the Hill Times on May 10, 2017.

Image: Flickr/andresAzp​

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