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A 21st-century Big Power rivalry is playing out in Venezuela

What the U.S., Russia and China decide to do and how they do it will help determine how badly Venezuelans suffer and for how much longer.

Juan Guaido
Early Tuesday, Juan Guaido, above, the head of parliament who claims to be Venezuela’s legitimate leader, had reason to believe Nicolas Maduro was about to flee the country. He didn’t.
REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The United States has the right partner in Venezuela, but it also has limited tools to end the country’s agony. China and Russia have serious tools at their disposal, but they’re backing the wrong side.

So how does this 21st-century Big Power rivalry play out? Even though Nicolas Maduro almost certainly is on his way out sooner or later as Venezuela’s president, people will be suffering the effects of the country’s collapse for decades to come. The United States, China and Russia can make it better or worse, depending on how they think about history, oil and Venezuela’s army.

Early Tuesday, Juan Guaidó, the head of parliament who claims to be Venezuela’s legitimate leader, had reason to believe Maduro was about to flee the country. He didn’t, and the support that Guaidó thought he had lined up within Maduro’s inner circle didn’t materialize. A day later, both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton called out Russia for interfering to keep Maduro in place. At week’s end, President Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin and agreed with him on just about everything, including “election hoaxes” (that’s a whole different story). Trump reported that Putin was “not looking at all to get involved” in Venezuela, and only wanted something positive to happen.

Despite the mixed messaging, the United States is not only on the right side in Venezuela, but has a good chance to be on the winning side. Washington, many European and Latin American countries back Guaidó against Maduro’s repressive kleptocracy. Guaidó didn’t succeed in getting rid of Maduro this past week, but it is a sign of the president’s weakness that Guaidó still is free. Long term, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for Maduro to survive.

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But last week’s failure also highlights the fact that Guaidó probably needs — and doesn’t yet have — the support of the military.

The U.S. has imposed a long list of sanctions on Venezuela, and officials insist that “all options are on the table,” including military intervention. But that’s dangerous and probably not going to happen, at least not in anything other than a very limited way — a show of force, perhaps, or an operation to evacuate U.S. citizens. The history of U.S. meddling in Latin America simply is too fraught. Large-scale intervention would turn many in Venezuela and the region against the United States. And as in Iraq, it would put Washington in the position of trying to fix the country after removing its leadership.

More realistic (although less satisfying, and in some ways very un-Trumpian) would be for the United States to organize a rescue of Venezuela after Maduro goes, using bilateral aid and its influence in organizations such as the International Monetary Fund to help rebuild the country and restructure its debt.

On the other hand, Beijing and Moscow have been propping up Maduro for years. They could keep doing so, but that would mean committing even more money. Still, they too must recognize he probably can’t hang on forever. A new government could simply abrogate their agreements with Maduro’s government, leaving billions of dollars in debts unpaid, invalidating ownership stakes in the Venezuelan oil industry and eliminating a lucrative market for Russian warplanes, antiaircraft missiles and Kalashnikov assault rifles.  

Russia has made a few billion dollars in loans at key moments to help keep Maduro afloat. It has taken stakes in a number of oil and natural gas fields, plus 49.9 percent of Citgo. Its ace, though, may be weapons sales and the relationship they have created with Venezuela’s military.

Military officers are in charge of nearly a quarter of government ministries and many major businesses. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, officers import food at discounted rates and sell it on the black market. And the military itself has been shielded from budget cuts.

If Guaidó needs the military to help get rid of Maduro, the army will be in a position of some power – and able to push back on efforts to cut Russia out of Venezuela’s future. Russia could start edging away from Maduro and cultivate military officers who could take power themselves or cooperate with the opposition. The substantial downside for Venezuela is that would keep elements of the old power structure in place.

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China’s exposure is much bigger, built largely around an oil-for-loans deal. While China has stuck by Maduro so far, it isn’t enamored of him. Venezuela’s oil reserves maybe the largest in the world, but its economic collapse means the production needed to pay back the loans is dropping steadily. Beijing risks Venezuela simply defaulting.

The relationship is tricky for Guaidó, as well. Rebuilding Venezuela means selling a lot of oil. It’s all Venezuela has, and China is the world’s biggest buyer. So experts point out that, unlike the Russians, Guaidó has reassured the Chinese he would pay them back. China is suspicious of “regime change,” but at what cost? The prospect of getting repaid might encourage it to at least look the other way.

The Trump administration can be careful or reckless in how it approaches the Venezuela crisis. Russia and China have to decide whether to stick with Maduro, or distance themselves. What they do and how they do it will help determine how badly Venezuelans suffer and for how much longer.