Canada’s recognition of Juan Guaido as true Venezuelan leader was months in the making – National

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The politician Canada and its allies recognizes as Venezuela’s real leader stood in a Caracas plaza Friday and exhorted his supporters to “stay the course” if he winds up behind bars.

Juan Guaido’s defiant pronouncement against President Nicolas Maduro – whom Canada has branded a dictator who stole an election – marked the latest dramatic development in Venezuela’s political crisis. It followed Guaido’s decision two days earlier to declare himself his country’s interim leader, two weeks after Maduro’s contested inauguration.

WATCH: Every country ‘ought to recognize constitutional leader’ of Venezuela: Pompeo






But emboldening Venezuela’s opposition has been a labour of months, The Canadian Press has learned. Canadian diplomats in Caracas, with their Latin American counterparts, worked to get the country’s opposition parties to coalesce behind the one person who emerged strong enough to stand against Maduro: 35-year-old Guaido.

The turning point came Jan. 4 when the Lima Group – the bloc that includes Canada and more than a dozen Latin American countries – rejected the legitimacy of Maduro’s May 2018 election victory and his looming Jan. 10 inauguration, while recognizing the “legitimately elected” National Assembly, sources say.

WATCH: Elliott Abrams joining State Department as point person on Venezuela






“They were really looking for international support of some kind, to be able to hold onto a reason as to why they should unite, and push out somebody like Juan Guaido,” said one source.

The Canadian Press interviewed senior Canadian government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the crisis in Venezuela. They detailed Canada’s role in aiding democratic forces to rescue the once oil-rich country from the economic and political spiral that has forced three million Venezuelans from their homes.

Canada anticipated this week’s developments because its diplomats have been keeping in close contact with Guaido and other opposition figures in Venezuela. “We listen to them. We listen to the diaspora in Canada and elsewhere in the world, and we do what we can,” said one source.


READ MORE:
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The quiet Canadian diplomacy was conducted in tandem with Lima Group allies such as Chile, Peru, Colombia and Brazil. It was part of a Canadian diplomatic tradition that included efforts in the 1980s to shield Chilean dissidents fighting the Pinochet dictatorship.

And in 2000, foreign-affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy led a multilateral mission to Peru that ousted strongman Alberto Fujimori, said Canada’s former ambassador to Venezuela Ben Rowswell.

“The tradition here is that Canada believes in the principles of human rights and democracy and takes pragmatic measures on the ground to unblock political situations,” said Rowswell.

WATCH: Political crisis in Venezuela as military backs Maduro






Rowswell said he drew on that tradition while he was in Venezuela, hosting a high-profile award party at the Canadian Embassy to honour a local civil-society leader. The annual gathering sent a message that the world was watching pro-democracy efforts in the face of Maduro’s growing authoritarianism.

After Rowswell’s 2017 departure, the Lima Group was born and Canada began working within that coalition – which does not include the United States – to further human rights and democracy in the hemisphere.

Maduro’s May 20, 2018 election victory galvanized the Lima Group’s efforts. The group denounced the vote as illegitimate and downgraded diplomatic relations.

WATCH: Venezuela facing power crisis as international community looks on






The diplomats who remained focused on building bridges with a fractured opposition that was as much at odds with itself as it was with Maduro.

In a November report, the International Crisis Group documented the divisions and urged the groups to set aside their “personal and political rivalries.”

The top contenders to lead the opposition were long-time leaders Leopold Lopez and Julio Borges, but there were problems with both. Lopez has been under house arrest since 2014, while Borges is living in exile.


READ MORE:
Maduro vs Guaido: Venezuela is split between leaders and the world is taking sides

Borges put forth Guaido as a contender, said one source.

Guaido made a clandestine trip to Washington in mid-December to brief U.S. officials on his strategy for dealing with Maduro’s Jan. 10 inauguration. He secretly crossed his country’s border with Colombia so Venezuelan immigration officials wouldn’t know he’d left and prevent his return.

As talks among Venezuelan opposition factions progressed, one source said, they began to set aside their differences. A key realization set in: “This is not about us. This is about the country.”

The source said the opposition groups deserve full credit for getting to that point. But it helped that Canadian diplomats “could facilitate conversations with people that were out of the country and inside the country” with other foreign diplomats.

WATCH: Kremlin: Nicolas Maduro is Venezuela’s legitimate president






On Jan. 5, Guaido assumed the presidency of the National Assembly, which the Lima Group regards as “the only remaining democratically elected institution in the country.”

Four days later, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland telephoned Guaido to “congratulate him on becoming president of the National Assembly and his work on uniting the opposition,” said another source.

The next day, Maduro was sworn in as president with support of countries such as Cuba, Russia and China; Freeland said “the Maduro regime is now fully entrenched as a dictatorship.”

WATCH: Chilean president says Chile, Lima Group recognize Juan Guaido as Venezuelan president






On Wednesday, after Guaido declared himself to be the interim president, Venezuelans took to the streets in protests across the country. “It’s an important day for Venezuela,” Freeland said in Davos, Switzerland.

On Friday, Maduro told a news conference he’d be willing to talk to the opposition to settle the question of who leads the country, but he defended his presidency. He also called Guaido’s declaration “a desperate act” backed by the U.S.

Canadian officials said that while U.S. leaders such as President Donald Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have also denounced Maduro, there has been no direct co-ordination between the Lima Group and Washington.

WATCH: Trump backs Maduro rival amid protests in Venezuela






As for this week’s rallies, the Venezuelans have full ownership of those.

“It was completely done by the opposition and their people on the ground in Venezuela,” said one official. “We couldn’t have helped them get to this point … if they weren’t willing and really putting their necks out.”

— With files from the Associated Press

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As holidays near, Winnipeg-based Venezuelan family faces deportation in New Year

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Ana Sofia Rodrigues Suarez asked Santa for three things this Christmas: clothes, candy and to stay in Winnipeg instead of being deported in the New Year.

« I really want to stay here, » said Ana, 11, seated at a table with her colourful drawings and school work in the Westdale duplex the Venezuela-born sixth-grader shares with her parents, aunt and 86-year-old grandmother. 

« I have a lot of friends and they will be very sad if I left them. »

Watch Ana list Canadian things she’ll miss:

Ana Sofia Rodrigues Suarez, 11, says her friends will be sad if she and her family leave and are unable to come back to Winnipeg. 0:33

After a series of applications to stay in Manitoba were dismissed, Ana’s father, Luiz Antonio Rodrigues Bonito, said Canada Border Services Agency notified him this month he needed to buy plane tickets by Friday and be out of the country by Jan. 21.

« I feel sad, desperate, just because my daughter, you know, she is very happy here, » said Luiz, 56, who works as a janitor with his wife, Sandra Suarez de Rodrigues, 50, at a local church.

« When I talk to her and say, ‘You know, we must leave Canada,’ she really, really cry a lot. »

Luiz wipes snow off the family van during his first winter here in 2016. (Supplied by Bonito family)

Following a traumatic home invasion and robbery in 2014, the family fled Venezuela for Winnipeg, where Luiz’s brother’s family has lived since the 1970s.

Luiz’s mother, wife, daughter and sister, Cristina Rodrigues Bonito, left amid ongoing economic turmoil that spawned a refugee crisis that has seen over two million Venezuelans flee the South American country in recent years, according to estimates from the United Nations.

Economic turmoil

The family once ran a successful business that sold appliances to hotels and restaurants, but things changed in the mid-2000s, a few years after the late Hugo Chavez took over as president of oil-rich Venezuela. 

For a time, Chavez helped provide better health care and other opportunities for the poor and working classes, but his government also fixed prices for some foods and goods. By 2014, the price of oil had plummeted, and the government was left in serious debt.

Luiz said the Chavez government took over his business and many others. Soon it became a challenge to access basic services or find enough food at grocery stores, he said. Food shortages remain a problem in Venezuela.

Luiz and Sandra participated in an anti-government group and protests in Venezuela and were taken into custody for a day. Luiz said they were made to sign a document stating they would face indefinite jail time if they were arrested for similar protests again.

Two other cousins have been imprisoned in Venezuela in recent years for similar political activity, the family said.

Gun to the head

Then, in 2014, Cristina was approved as a permanent resident in Manitoba through the Provincial Nominee Program. She planned to postpone her move to Winnipeg until Luiz and the rest of the family had their approvals as well, but the home invasion that year changed that.

Cristina, left, says she plans to leave with her niece Ana, right, and her parents if they are forced to leave the country and settle in Portugal. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

« I was shocked. I was sleeping in my own bed and somebody covered my mouth and put a gun at the top of my head, » Cristina said with a quivering voice, adding the robbers tied the family up in a room and threatened them.

« What I was most scared about was we were seeing their faces … I said, ‘They’re going to kill us all,’ because that’s what happens when you see their faces. »

The family dogs died in the days before and tests later showed they were likely poisoned, said Cristina. 

It took a while for Ana to recover.

‘I’m crushed’

Luiz came to Winnipeg on a tourist visa in 2015, as did his wife and daughter, after having his application to Canada’s skilled labourer program dismissed. While here, he learned his application through the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program was dismissed in 2015.

Sandra, Ana and Luiz celebrate mother’s day at Oasis Church, where both adults work as custodians. (Supplied by Bonito family)

In 2017, Luiz and Sandra obtained work permits and their volunteering at Oasis Church turned into paid jobs as custodians.

They’ve become valued employees and members of the church, said the church’s community life pastor Kelly Gray.

He said news of their deportation is devastating.

Watch Gray’s goodbye message to the family:

Oasis Church community life pastor Kelly Gray says he was crushed to learn Luiz Bonito and his family are being deported next month. 0:22

« I’m crushed. I I don’t think there’s ever a good time to get news like that. Christmas doesn’t make it any easier, » said Gray.

« It’s such a friendly family, a loving family, and it’s hard to see this cloud hanging over them. I know they’re happy here. »

Kelly Gray, right, Ana, centre, Sandra and Luiz, left, talk about the holidays at Oasis Church Thursday. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Luiz’s application to stay in Manitoba on humanitarian and compassionate grounds was rejected in 2017, so his wife, Sandra, filed for refugee status on behalf of the family that year. The refugee claim was denied and an attempt to appeal at the federal court level was dismissed this fall.

Humanitarian case

They’re now waiting for the results of a November humanitarian and compassionate case application they made in the interest of Ana’s well-being. The Canadian Human Rights International Organization, which advocates on behalf of thousands of refugees worldwide, is handling that plea and helping to get the Bonitos’ story out.

« They believe … they will be targeted upon their re-entry into Venezuela which will put not only their lives in danger, but it will also put their daughter’s life in danger, » reads a Dec. 12 letter addressed to Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. « Ana’s safety is their main priority. »

Luiz bought notified Canada Border Services Agency via email Thursday night he had purchased tickets to Portugal on Jan. 21, 2019. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Cristina and Luiz were born in Brazil, but also fear for their safety if they were to move there.

Their late father, born in Portugal, arranged for Luiz and Cristina to obtain passports from that country as a contingency in case things in Canada fell through. 

On Thursday night, Luiz bought the family tickets to Madeira, Portugal, for Jan. 21. They don’t know anyone there.

Although she can technically stay in Manitoba, Cristina is going to leave with her brother’s family and mother.

‘Respect our laws’

A Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson refused to comment on the case, but said decisions to remove people from Canada aren’t taken lightly.

« Everyone ordered removed from Canada is entitled to due process, » the spokesperson wrote in an email. 

« Once due process is complete and individuals have exhausted all legal avenues, they are expected to respect our laws and leave Canada or be removed. »

Cristina and Ana pose next to their first Winnipeg snowman in 2016. (Supplied by Bonito family)

For Ana, she loves being close to her uncle’s family in Winnipeg. Her three years in the cold Prairie city have been full of firsts. French is one of her favourite subjects, as are the people.

« It’s fun. I can have a snowball fight and I can make, what are they called, snowmans, » she said.

« People are really nice to me here and I like school a lot and I like everything about it. »

As many Manitobans plan to come together for the holidays, one Winnipeg-based Venezuelan family is facing deportation in the New Year. 3:23

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