In The Media

Canada dispatches digital diplomacy devotee to Caracas

by Peter Mazereeuw

March 5, 2014 

Ottawa’s top digital diplomat is going to represent Canada in Venezuela.

Ben Rowswell was officially appointed ambassador to Venezuela on Feb. 28, just less than two months after massive protests began across the country and a few weeks after reports of protesters killed by Venezuelan authorities began to mount.

Mr. Rowswell is one of Canada’s leading practitioners of digital diplomacy: he oversaw a pilot project last year on direct diplomacy for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development where he helped to establish a communications platform for Iranians and Iranian emigrants to communicate with each other, and occasionally the Canadian government, beyond the reach of that country’s censors. 

He said in a phone interview he began promoting the use of digital diplomacy by the government after a break-year studying at Stanford University from 2010 to 2011, during which he researched the way in which activists used digital media to enact political change. 

His digital media skills will help him collect crucial information on the political situation in Venezuela without relying on the traditional media, he said.

“We want to know what’s going on in Venezuela, and because so much of the political debate and the political discussion, and frankly just the raw news about Venezuela, is happening on social media, we need to be on social media as well,” he said.


Venezuelan analyst: News outlets ‘shut down’

TV and radio stations in Venezuela have been “shut down,” and newspapers don’t have paper to print on, said Nelson Dordelly Rosales, a Venezuelan immigrant to Canada who teaches law at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies. Much of the news of the protests has spread through social media.

Venezuelan students and members of the middle-class have led protests against government corruption, food shortages and sky-high inflation, Mr. Rosales said. At least 17 protestors have been killed during the protests.

Venezuela is one of the world’s most digitally-engaged countries, Mr. Rowswell said, boasting the fourth-highest per capita usage of Twitter.

“It is important to have very good, up to date and reliable political reporting” in a country in crisis, said John Graham, a former ambassador to Venezuela, in a phone interview. Chilled bilateral relations mean it “is highly unlikely [Mr. Rowswell will] be able to exert any influence on the situation” through traditional diplomacy, Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Rowswell’s experience engaging the Iranian population through direct diplomacy could be a sign of the government’s strategy for that country, said David Carment, a fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and professor of International affairs at Carleton University, in a phone interview.

“The Harper government is very deliberate and specific about where it picks its entry points,” he said, noting the close ties between Venezuelan and Iranian governments under former leaders Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

An Iranian delegation travelled to Venezuela and Cuba this week and voiced support for the government of Nicolás Maduro, Iranian news agencies Tasnim and Press TV reported.

Canada’s federal government believes it has an interest in undermining the Venezuelan government, Mr. Carment said, which it sees as unfriendly to its interests.

“What I’m suggesting is that, why Venezuela would be a choice for this government, as opposed to a myriad of others countries you could select, is because of that connection [with Iran],” Mr. Carment said.

Ana Carolina Rodriguez, the head of mission at Venezuela’s embassy in Ottawa, said in an interview it would be improper for either Mr. Rowswell or herself to encourage the population of their host country to denounce or rebel against the government.

Mr. Rowswell said he has not been instructed to engage in the sort of direct diplomacy he practiced with the Iranian population, cutting the government out of the loop, but to “understand the full diversity of perspectives” and engage will all political actors.

Canada’s government is increasing its use of digital diplomacy across the board, he said, and the two-way nature of communicating on digital media means it cannot stay silent on issues that call for it to voice an opinion.

He will use digital media only to “supplement” the more traditional tactics of diplomacy, he said.

He said he did not yet have a clear understanding of the relationship between Venezuela and Iran, adding “I’ll have to just keep an eye open.”

His appointment has been in the works since before protests began in Venezuela at the beginning of the year, he said.


Slow to take sides

Canada has taken a measured response to the unrest in Venezuela so far, using press releases and a motion in the House of Commons to call on both sides of the conflict to stop resorting to violence and on the government to release detained protesters and allow peaceful protests to take place.

That stands in contrast to its one-sided response to the violent crackdown on protests by the former Ukrainian government under Viktor Yanukovych, which included sanctions against government leaders and two trips to Ukraine by Foreign Minister John Baird.

Catering to the diaspora populations in Canada has increasingly shaped Canadian foreign policy over the past decade, Mr. Graham said. More than one million Canadians claim Ukrainian roots, and that may account for the contrasting responses, he said.

“I think the Conservatives have long regarded [Ukraine] as an important potential voting segment. That has a great deal to do with it, and you don’t have equivalent for Venezuela,” he said.

Andrew Griffith, a former director general of citizenship and multiculturalism for the federal government, said in an email that the Venezuelan diaspora “never came up in my work.”

More than 18,000 people in Canada claimed Venezuelan heritage in 2011, according to data from Statistics Canada. The largest communities reside in Toronto, Montreal and Calgary.

The Venezuelan community has organized protests in cities across Canada over the past several weeks, and community leaders are collecting signatures on a petition and meeting with MPs from all parties to ask the government to take a stronger position, said Lino Carillo, a Venezuelan Canadian oil worker and community activist, in a phone interview.

Ms. Roriguez said members of the Venezuelan diaspora who support the Maduro government have also held demonstrations in Canada.

Josue Ramirez, another Venezuelan Canadian community activist and former Venezuelan diplomat to the Organization of American States, and Mr. Rosales said they hoped Canada would use a March 4 OAS meeting to drum up diplomatic pressure on Venezuela to stop its violence against protesters.

“I know how these negotiations are done at the OAS and I know the influence Canada has with the Caribbean countries,” because of its size and their ties through the commonwealth, Mr. Ramirez said in a phone interview.

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