The ambassador with no embassy: Venezuela’s opposition loses momentum in bid to oust Maduro

The man Canada considers Venezuela’s ambassador in Ottawa still has no keys to the embassy. 

Orlando Viera-Blanco was officially recognized as the oil-rich nation’s ambassador by Canada in November 2019. But he isn’t living in the ambassador’s official residence, nor can his team issue passports or provide basic consular services. 

His position — holding a title without an office — serves as something of a metaphor for the opposition in the state of Venezuela and its attempts to oust the government of Nicolas Maduro.

Despite a concerted pressure campaign from Canada, the United States and much of Latin America involving sanctions, asset freezes, travel bans and other tactics, Maduro continues to run the country from Miraflores Palace in Caracas.  

The self-described socialist and former bus driver governs despite a profound economic crisis, shortages of basic food supplies and millions of Venezuelans fleeing the country — which critics blame on endemic corruption and mismanagement. 

Canada and its allies in Europe and Latin America consider Maduro an authoritarian leader who gained power through fraudulent elections. He denies this and retains support from Russia, Cuba and Turkey, among other countries. 

Venezuelan representative Orlando Viera-Blanco is shown at a news conference with members of the Lima Group following a meeting of the organization in Ottawa in February 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

In April 2019, opposition leader Juan Guaido — whom Canada and about 50 other countries consider Venezuela’s legitimate interim president based on his position as head of its National Assembly — called for a military uprising to oust Maduro amid large street protests. He was unsuccessful.

Today, with governments around the world focused on fighting COVID-19, analysts said Viera-Blanco and his boss, Guaido, are running out of options.

“The momentum in politics is a roller-coaster,” Viera-Blanco said in an interview with CBC News. “Sometimes you slow down a little bit because the expectation is not done … you can lose the momentum a little bit.”

Opposition lacks military support

The situation in Venezuela has led to the world’s second-highest number of refugees after Syria, he said, as the country’s humanitarian crisis has caused more than four million people to flee in search of food, jobs and medical care.

Viera-Blanco said he believes worsening conditions will eventually lead Venezuelans to rise up, calling the situation “a bomb of time that could at any moment reach a social blow.”

But some analysts aren’t convinced.

“For the opposition, my impression now is there was a moment, and that moment passed,” said Yvon Grenier, a professor of political science at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., who studies Latin America. “I think Maduro is stronger today than he was this time last year, and the opposite is true for the opposition.” 

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a news conference in Caracas on March 9. His ambassador in Ottawa praised Canada’s contributions to the opposition’s cause. (Federico Parra/AFP via Getty Images)

Starting in 2017, when Canada intensified its push to oust Maduro, Grenier said there was a belief at Global Affairs Canada that the “regime in Venezuela could not possibly stay in power with millions of people leaving the country and 1.6 million per cent inflation.” 

Guaido was recognized by Canada, the U.S. and other countries as Venezuela’s interim president in January 2019. His movement has made a series of miscalculations since then, Grenier said, and it now faces increased internal divisions. More importantly, it’s been unable to gain crucial support from the military.

The dire humanitarian situation, and anger at the government, hasn’t necessarily translated into popular support for Guaido, he added. 

“I have seen polls where Guaido is not much more popular than Maduro.” 

Canada ‘fully committed’ to peaceful solution

A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada did not directly address questions on whether the opposition has lost momentum or on what other tools remain at its disposal. 

“Canada strongly condemns the systematic attacks by the illegitimate Maduro regime against Venezuela’s democracy and people through its attempts to undermine Venezuela’s democratic institutions and democratic opposition,” a spokesperson told CBC News via email.

 “Canada believes that a peaceful political solution is needed more than ever and we remain fully committed to continuing to support efforts to that end.”

Thousands of protesters gather at Avenida Francisco de Miranda during a demonstration organized by Guaido in February 2019 in Caracas. Venezuelans demanded that the military let humanitarian aid into the country. (Edilzon Gamez/Getty Images)

Viera-Blanco, for his part, said Canada has been crucial in rallying international support for Guaido and has contributed tens of millions of dollars to support Venezuelan refugees hosted in neighbouring countries. 

Regardless of Canada’s ongoing support for its cause, U.S. President Donald Trump and some members of his administration seem to have largely lost interest in Venezuela’s opposition as the presidential election looms. 

Trump reportedly referred to Maduro as a “tough cookie” for his staying power in the face of international pressure. 

According to former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton’s recent book, The Room Where It Happened, Trump has disparaged Guaido, saying “he doesn’t have what it takes” and calling him “the Beto O’Rourke of Venezuela,” referring to the unsuccessful contender for the Democratic presidential nomination from Texas.

WATCH | American accused of plotting against Venezuelan government:

Venezuelan TV clips show accused man revealing details of an alleged operation to seize the airport, capture President Nicolas Maduro and transport him to the U.S. 1:02

Viera-Blanco said is he “not at all” worried about Trump’s alleged assessment, pointing to support Guaido and his team retain in the U.S. Senate and other branches government.

John Kirk, a professor of Latin American studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said Canada should not “jump on the Washington bandwagon” of pushing for regime change in Venezuela.

“It is clear that there are problems with the Maduro government and the manner in which is was elected,” he said via email. “It is also clear that Juan Guaido, the ‘chosen one’ of the opposition — selected and supported actively by the Trump administration — is incapable of uniting opposition forces.”

Oil interests produce ‘aggression against Venezuela’

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told a Canadian-organized webinar last month that Ottawa is providing cover for Washington’s “aggression” against Caracas.  

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government had a series of disagreements with the Trump administration over climate change, trade and other issues, Arreaza said. And part of Canada’s motivation in leading the charge against Maduro’s government stemmed from a desire to mend fences with Trump, he alleged. 

A mural displayed in Caracas in August 2019 reads in Spanish: “Trump unblock Venezuela” after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order freezing Venezuelan government assets in an escalation of tensions with Maduro. (Leonardo Fernandez/The Associated Press)

“We also must say there is a second motivation that produces this aggression against Venezuela: it is related to the oil interests,” he said, contending that Alberta oilsands producers wanted to displace Venezuelan heavy oil from access to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. 

“It’s all about business; they want to control Venezuelan oil, Venezuelan gold ….”

Arreaza called Viera-Blanco “a rich Venezuelan who used to tweet from Porsche in Miami” who was “appointed ambassador of the Narnia government,” referring to the fantasy children’s story. 

“Nobody knew Juan Guaido before he raised his hand and proclaimed himself president,” Arreaza said of events in January 2019. “Now, many Venezuelans have forgotten his name.”

What’s next for Venezuela? 

Venezuela’s next round of legislative elections are set to happen before the end of this year.  

Viera-Blanco said they won’t be free or fair; many opposition lawmakers plan to boycott them altogether. 

A woman wearing a face mask as a precaution from the novel coronavirus collects water on the side of the road to take home in Caracas in April. The country faces a profound economic crisis and millions of Venezuelans fleeing the country — which critics blame on endemic corruption and mismanagement. (Ariana Cubillos/The Associated Press)

Some analysts have suggested that more dialogue between the government and opposition is the only way forward.

Talks between the opposing camps have been happening on and off for more than five years.

Mediated at times by the Vatican or Norway, they have borne virtually no tangible results or changes on the ground, Grenier, of St. Francis Xavier University, said.  

As for the Venezuelan Embassy in Canada, a few representatives of Maduro’s government remain in Ottawa to provide consular services, Viera-Blanco said. But chronic shortages and other logistical problems back home mean they lack basic supplies to process new passports or conduct other routine services for Venezuelans living here.

A man who was detained for not complying with COVID-19 regulations by breaking curfew and being out on the street drinking is disinfected with an alcohol solution in Caracas last month. The coronavirus has taken the momentum out of the opposition’s effort to overthrow Maduro. (Ariana Cubillos/The Associated Press)


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