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

Juan Guaido
REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
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.

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.

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.

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.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by John Evans on 05/06/2019 - 11:55 am.

    The press normally describes Venezuela as a failed socialist state or a regressive kleptocracy, as if the country created this mess all by itself, or with help from the evil wizard Fidel.

    While I don’t agree with all of Porubkansky’s article, at least he introduces us to the decades-long struggle among the US, Russia and China over the vast resources of one small country.

    Porubkansky doesn’t mention that control over Venezuela’s oil has been a top foreign policy priority, and plans for the US invasion were moved to the front burner in the Bush administration. When Trump was elected and he outsourced the state department to Exxon Mobil’s Rex Tillerson, it became obvious that things were going to get much worse for Venezuelans very quickly.

    Freedom, self-determination and the rights of the poor Venezuelans to control and benefit from their own resources have never been priorities, and probably just aren’t in the cards.

  2. Submitted by David Lundeen on 05/06/2019 - 12:17 pm.

    The news and politics surrounding Venezuela is quite fascinating. It’s important, when considering the potential future paths the country might take, to look at the facts.

    First of all, Russia really does not have any considerable tools of influence, especially in this hemisphere. In all reality, the press provides too much credit and power to Russia. Currently, under sanctions itself, Russia can hardly obtain any Western credit to develop their own oil and gas reserves. Any financing they can lend is more an attempt to appear important within America’s backyard. Additionally, a lot of this is done for domestic reasons. Putin places much emphasis on reviving Russia’s role in global affairs to improve his popularity (Syria and Crimea) while distracting citizens from his kleptocracy.

    China brings up a whole other list of concerns. Anyone second or third world government should be rightly concerned about doing business with China as evidenced by the deep water port takeover in Sri Lanka. Who ever is running Venezuela in the near to moderate is no doubt aware of this. China might buy Venezuelan oil, but there oil purchases are differentiated across many different countries as to make sure they aren’t over reliant on one.

    This article really missed the point about Venezuela. A simple look at the mismanagement by the Chavez administration (basically a colonial extraction economy which never set aside reserves) suggests deeper problems than what is addressed.

  3. Submitted by Ed Felien on 05/06/2019 - 01:25 pm.

    Venezuela must be punished because they dare to call themselves socialist. People must suffer and die because of the U S blockade of food and medicine. The CIA is doing everything it can to undermine and overthrow the democratically elected government. And if we remain silent in the face of this horror, then we are complicit.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/06/2019 - 03:57 pm.

      Yeah, calling Maduro’s regime a democratically elected government is a pretty big stretch.

    • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 05/07/2019 - 01:26 am.

      Max Blumenthal, Aaron Mate, Abby Martin and other real journalists who have been on the ground in Venezuela agree with you. Of course, the New York Times, Washington Post, and other corporate outlets have endorsed every foreign intervention for several decades. Unfortunately, regime change efforts are one area in which corporate Democrats and the GOP agree entirely.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/07/2019 - 08:44 am.

        Abby Martin, the 9-11 conspiracy theorist who worked for Russia Today? And Aaron Mate, the guy who has done nothing but lie about Russian intervention in elections? These are propagandists. These are clowns. They are not journalists.

        When the government locks up opposition leaders, closes opposition media, ignores the elected assembly by creating an additional one, we aren’t talking about real democracy any more. Actually, the first clue is when a leader has the constitution amended to allow him to stay in power longer. There is a reason groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch don’t agree with your assessment.

        Has the US interfered? Yes, of course. But to pretend its all them and that was the sole cause of the disaster is beyond naive. You should really branch out where you get your news, because you would be hard pressed to do worse. Alex Jones, maybe, although Abby Martin is pretty close.

        • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 05/07/2019 - 07:24 pm.

          Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, head foreign correspondent for New York Times, opposed Iraq War, and let go by the paper. Now works for RT. Brennan lied to Congress under oath about weapons of mass destruction and now employed by MSNBC. Clapper lied to Congress under oath about government surveillance of private citizens and now employed by CNN. Mueller lied to Congress under oath about weapons of mass destruction.
          You really should branch out from Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, Jake Tapper, etc. and see what is occurring in France under Macron, Brazil under Bonsonaro, the failed state of Libya with open slave markets due to policies of Obama/Clinton, etc. Many people in foreign nations do not care which political party is in power in the USA, since foreign policy is essentially the same with both.

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/06/2019 - 01:34 pm.

    Multiple things can be true at the same time.

    Being an oil-rich country, Venezuela has a long history of interference from foreign powers. Trump isn’t the least bit interested in democracy and the plight of the Venezuelan people.

    That being said, Chavez and Maduro have driven the economy of Venezuela into the ground. Its less about socialism than kleptocracy (Chavez’s family looted billions) and gross incompetence. Maduro tried to solve the country’s financial problems by printing more money, and the obvious result of that was hyperinflation. There is no longer a functioning currency. There’s no functioning anything.

  5. Submitted by James Hamilton on 05/07/2019 - 12:22 pm.

    If, as many seem to think, Maduro’s days are limited, I prefer we let that play out without U.S. economic or military interference. The fact that its oil sales have dropped 40% since Trump imposed sanctions on those who buy Venezuelan oil will be remembered by Venezuelans who suffered as a result.

    Do I even need to address the mistake of a military intervention? I shouldn’t.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/09/2019 - 10:12 am.

    “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.”

    This is the kind Cold War nonsense that got 80+ thousand people killed throughout Central and South America for decades. Anyone who thinks war criminals like Bolton and Abrams are working for the people of Venezuela is simply delusional.

    No would describe Venezuela as a model of prosperity but the idea that the US should dictate and install governments in other countries is simply a criminal mind at work. You can criticize the elections but there is absolutely zero evidence that Juan Guaido was elected, he’s simply declaring himself as the President. If you think this guy is going to be Mr. freedom and democracy if he gets in, you need to study your histories of coup’s and juntas.

    The idea that the US has no “tools” at it’s disposal is another Cold War illusion that fits better in a 1970s era NYT’s article than 2019 Minnpost article. The US had tied up billions of dollars worth Venezuelan cash and assets all over the world, not mention the likely stunt of shutting down their power grid. If this were the 1980’s or 70’s we would have sent in troops or mercenaries by now.

    The author of this article seems assume that the US has the right to decide who the President of Venezuela ought to be, but alas, we lack the power to install our president of choice. That kind of geopolitical “thinking” trashed countries and killed tens of thousands (if not millions) all over the world.

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