What is shaping Canada’s foreign policy: human rights, democracy or bankers’ bottom-line?

self-proclaimed Interim President of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, speaks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa. Photo by Dave Chan/AFP.

By Yves Engler, Canadian Dimension, Feb. 5, 2020

Last week, Venezuelan politician Juan Guaidó was fêted in Ottawa. The self-declared president met with Justin Trudeau along with a number of other high ranking cabinet ministers including Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne. In hopes of “reinvigorating” efforts to bring democracy to Venezuela, Trudeau said, “I commend Interim President Guaidó for the courage and leadership he has shown in his efforts to return democracy to Venezuela, and I offer Canada’s continued support.”

Guaidó was most recently dethroned as leader of Venezuela’s national assembly. While the vote was contested, it represents a significant blow to his year-old claim to be Venezuela’s legitimate president. To shore up his position as opposition leader, Guaidó travelled to a number of international capitals and the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

The Ottawa stop on Guaidó’s legitimacy seeking tour was the latest instalment of the Trudeau government’s multi-pronged effort to overthrow the increasingly embattled government of Nicolás Maduro’s. In a bid to help trigger “regime change”, Ottawa has worked to isolate Caracas by imposing illegal sanctions, taking the Maduro government to the International Criminal Court, and granting legitimacy to the claim of a marginal opposition politician to the Venezuela’s presidency.

On the same day Guaidó was fêted in Ottawa, Scotiabank CEO Brian Porter penned “A call to action on Venezuela” in the National Post. The op-ed urged governments to “seize assets of corrupt regime officials” and to use the proceeds to give “support to the democratic movement in Venezuela.” Porter also applauded the Liberal’s “moral clarity by unambiguously condemning the Maduro regime’s abuses” and praised their “tremendous courage and leadership in the hemisphere and on the world stage.”

Scotiabank has long had frosty relations with the Bolivarian government. A few days after Hugo Chavez’s death in 2013, the Globe & Mail Report on Business published a front-page story about Scotiabank’s interests in Venezuela, which were acquired just before his rise to power. It noted the “Bank of Nova Scotia [Scotiabank] is often lauded for its bold expansion into Latin America, having completed major acquisitions in Colombia and Peru. But when it comes to Venezuela, the bank has done little for the past 15 years – primarily because the government of President Hugo Chavez has been hostile to large-scale foreign investment.”

The perspective of the world’s 40th largest bank has played a role in shaping Ottawa’s position towards Caracas. At the other end of the continent, its interests have contributed to the Trudeau government’s support for embattled billionaire president Sebastián Piñera.

A number of stories have highlighted Scotiabank’s concerns about recent protests against inequality in Chile. For example, the Financial Post noted, “Scotiabank’s strategic foray into Latin America hits a snag with Chile unrest” and, in the headline of another article, “Riots, state of emergency in Chile force Scotiabank to postpone investor day.”

Last week, Scotiabank’s CEO blamed the protests that began in October on an “intelligence breakdown” with people outside Chile “that came in with an intention of creating havoc.” In a story titled “Why Brian Porter is doubling down on Scotiabank’s Latin American expansion”, he told the Financial Post, almost unbelievably, that Twitter accounts tied to Russia sparked the unrest.

Two weeks into massive demonstrations against Piñera’s government, Trudeau held a phone conversation with the Chilean president who then had a 14% approval rating. According to Amnesty International, 19 people had already died and dozens more were seriously injured in protests that began against a hike in transit fares and later morphed into a broader challenge to economic inequality. Several thousand people were also arrested by a government that declared martial law and sent the army into the streets.

According to the published report of the conversation, Trudeau and Piñera discussed their joint campaign to remove Venezuela’s president while the Prime Minister criticized “election irregularities in Bolivia”, which were disingenuously used to justify ousting left-leaning Indigenous president Evo Morales in late-2019.

Canadian Press story noted, “a summary from the Prime Minister’s Office of Trudeau’s phone call with Piñera made no direct mention of the ongoing turmoil in Chile, a thriving country with which Canada has negotiated a free trade agreement.”

Despite numerous appeals from Canada’s Chilean community, the Trudeau government has stayed quiet concerning the fiercest repression in Chile since Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. A delegation of Québec parliamentarians, professors and union leaders that travelled to Chile in late January recently demanded Ottawa speak out against the abuses (four died in protest related violence last week). In a release about the delegation, Mining Watch noted that over 50% of Chile’s large mining industry is Canadian-owned. Canadian firms are also major players in the country’s infrastructure and Scotiabank is one of the country’s biggest financial players. Chile is also the top destination for Canadian investment in Latin America at over $20 billion.

As I detail in my forthcoming book House of Mirrors: Justin Trudeau’s Foreign Policy (Black Rose), the Liberals have said little about hundreds of killings by regimes in Haiti, Honduras, Bolivia, Chile and Colombia, yet they have aggressively condemned rights violations in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Many on the left would say this is because those governments are aligned with Washington, which is true. But it is also because they are friendly to corporate Canada.

If you want to understand Ottawa’s position on Latin America, listen to what Canadian bankers have to say.


Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.


Posted Feb. 6, 2020