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Venezuela at a Crossroads: A Way Forward in South America

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Over the past ten years, I have studied the Andean Region and its respective governments. During that time the trends, changes, and movements in those countries - Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela - have been mostly under the radar of mainstream political news in the US. That has changed in recent months (and particularly in the past couple of weeks) as the situation on the ground in Venezuela continues to deteriorate.

Now with two recognized presidents, the country faces fundamental political fracturing while also suffering through economic and humanitarian catastrophes. Overtures by influential outside powers - namely the United States and Russia – have increased the stakes of political competition within Venezuela itself, further heightening violence and tensions in the country.

I’d like to take the opportunity in this blog post to very briefly outline the serious political risks that exist today within this context: inside Venezuela, surrounding its borders, and across the globe.

Some business-minded professionals may initially find such a topic to be overly academic and not reflective of the information they believe they truly need (such as future market conditions). However, Venezuela’s state-centric economy and a history of deeply dependent integration into world trade make the connection between politics in Caracas and export trends nearly indistinguishable.

Why Venezuela is Such an Important Case Study

This brings up an interesting question: why focus on Venezuela? I find there are two principal factors to consider when examining the country and its international importance:

1.     Venezuela is a textbook case of a country plagued by a phenomenon known as the “resource curse,” which describes societies that struggle economically due to the possibly inevitable, but nonetheless ironic, mismanagement of lucrative natural resources. Like many other countries afflicted by the “curse,” Venezuela has oil – specifically, the world’s largest amount of it.

2.     Historical legacies of international and intercultural conflict have made Venezuela, like most Latin American societies, more unstable. Internally, the structural barriers of racism and classism have traditionally divided the country along aggressively polar lines, with non-white minorities almost completely shut out of power and wealth during many periods. Externally, predominantly white elites from Spain, then Britain, then the United States imposed crippling economic systems that exacerbated already dire divisions and inequality.

Venezuela as a Geopolitical Chokepoint

The crisis in Venezuela has exposed an interesting global reality, particularly in an age fascinated with the strategic value of interests in Asia and the Middle East: the heart of Latin America is an area full of geopolitical meaning which plays right into current tensions between major powers.

In short, the role of the United States in the region is impacting foreign policy decisions across the globe. Under Trump, the US is sticking to traditional American ideology towards Latin America as an extension of its security umbrella. This narrative has played out repeatedly since North American independence movements in the late 18th century. This includes the Monroe Doctrine and its more imperialist Roosevelt Corollary, as well as a series of Cold War interventions and machinations supporting dictatorships in the region from the 1950s to the 1980s while forcing difficult neoliberal economic reforms through Washington-dominated institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Indeed, such involvement extends to Venezuela, for as late as a 2002 failed coup against President Nicolas Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez provided populists with virulent and valuable anti-Americanism due to US support for a government overthrow in Caracas.

For these reasons, it is understandable that Latin Americans like Nicolas Maduro warn that the proposals of direct US intervention in Venezuela are  “another Vietnam” for the Americans. In an area where anti-American attitudes abound, engagement in a regime change operation is extremely risky and does not guarantee a free and fair outcome. Here, history suggests that US geopolitical interests will completely overtake the great needs of the (Venezuelan) people involved, and those that would eventually rise to power may simply restart the cycles of right and left-wing repression that brought Venezuela to this brink in the first place.

As such, the situation in Venezuela today is even more complex because these factors now contribute to multipolar competitions between the US, China, and Russia. The Chinese in particular, as the preeminent rising power in the world today, have global ambitions to develop economic might and international prestige. Through momentous investments in developing countries like Venezuela - whose oil is especially valuable to a large, insatiable economy - China has accumulated foreign policy capital through holding substantial sums of debt from national governments, which is a powerful source of policy influence and experimentation abroad (as seen in the introduction of advanced cyber capabilities in South American “partner” nations). China should, therefore, be expected to compete hard to maintain this favorable relationship in Venezuela, a relationship only possible under Nicolas Maduro.

Russia, another US adversary in the international sphere, has a similar relationship with Venezuela. Moscow was especially fond of the brand of populism espoused by Hugo Chavez and has had significant stakes in the Venezuelan oil business for many years. In this way, losing an ally like Maduro in Venezuela would represent a neo-Cold War loss of influence that would isolate Russia further.

Bloc Parties: Strategic Dilemmas

Upon closer review of the current Venezuelan case, it is clear that there are multiple levels of geopolitical tension occurring at the moment. Having already discussed the issues facing major world powers, I will now devote attention to the destructive disagreement between two opposing sides within Latin America itself, a division drawn primarily along ideological lines.

Right-wing Leaders

Latin American has recently undergone a major change in ideological power. Many of the region’s largest and most influential countries have elected governments that adopt a more neoliberal, pro-Washington stance on economic and political issues. For many, this represents the failure of populism as exposed by many high-profile corruption cases, especially in Argentina and Brazil.

The Venezuelan situation affects this latest regional political trend for no other reason than the geographic fact that its two largest neighbors - Colombia and Brazil - have governments that are within this right-learning group of relatively new leaderships. These countries have borne the brunt of the serious refugee crisis stemming from unlivable conditions within Venezuela itself. As a result, these two countries face serious pressures to address the wave of migration impacting their borders. Colombia is especially vulnerable to these effects now given its relatively recent and difficult peace process involving rebel groups and internally displaced individuals.

From the Left

Old Chavez allies, especially strident partners like Bolivia are attempting to rally to defend his regime and his protege, Nicolas Maduro.

Among these nations, none in the Western Hemisphere hold as much influence over Caracas as Cuba. Havana has provided a lifeline to the current Venezuelan regime throughout its existence, and Fidel Castro was notoriously close to Hugo Chavez, so much so that when Chavez needed cancer treatment he moved to Cuba and ran the Venezuelan government from there!

Today, that level of closeness has brought tensions internally and nationally to a boiling point. Reports about the deep infiltration of Cuban agents in Venezuelan government and military positions has stoked the fears of many right-wing advocates in the United States (especially the vocal and powerful Cuban-American interest group). Such close tethering of two states also complicates any untangling that will likely be required in order to resolve this serious political crisis, as both the investment in resources and expertise are literally propping up a Venezuelan government whose fall could create an even more devastating short term vacuum of increased suffering for citizens.

Perhaps this explains the curious view of Mexico in all of this. As the second most populated Latin American country, Mexico holds key diplomatic weight here. Interestingly, left-wing leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) was recently elected President and has worked to change the course of Mexican policy. Going against the trend set by his Latin American peers by supporting a new president in Venezuela is one way of announcing his commitment to change. For Mexico, it is a high-profile way of boldly opposing a Washington that has a President demanding an offensive border wall charged to Mexico itself. At the same time, does this also mean that AMLO holds dangerous pro-Maduro sympathies and is simply buying time before a more calculated move?

A Possible Solution: Let the Border States Decide

From this overall analysis, I have come to view the Venezuelan crisis as a matter of consent-based policy geared towards minimizing suffering and spillover. There are historical risks at play that can easy repeat themselves if governments and policymakers are not careful. And there is the difficult position of the Venezuelan people in all of this. While they of course have democratic rights to improve their dreadful situation, we must also be vigilant about addressing their desperate needs in a way that provides stability and the opportunity for nourished deliberation. This will not be an easy task given a broken economy, a severe lack of food, and normalized violence established within Venezuelan culture.

Based on this picture, I believe that the best way forward is to follow those who are closest to the Venezuelan situation who have the most power to affect boundaries and change. These actors do not currently reside within Venezuela but rather in Bogota, Colombia and Brasilia, Brazil. As mentioned above, these countries face the brunt of the risk-laden fallout emanating from Venezuelans fleeing for their lives. Given that refugee crises are notoriously difficult to address, Colombia and Brazil have strong motivations for resolving the upheaval created by Caracas and have an on-the-ground perspective of Venezuelans’ needs. Therefore they are in position to provide the perspective and consent that can drive meaningful humanitarian and political intervention, a fact that should be heeded throughout Washington, Moscow, and Beijing.

Although this is a very difficult situation, my hope is that the Venezuelan case - and any transitions that may emerge from it - can be established as a model for similar tensions going forward. While creating generalized models for case-by-case instances like the breakdown of Venezuela may seem ineffective, a framework which includes a regionalized response led by Colombia and Brazil can have near immediate benefits in promoting the stability of South America through another emerging case. Guyana, like Venezuela, has discovered significant oil reserves and faces political conflict related to the administration of its newly acquired wealth. With Brazil at the helm of this new diplomatic issue, perhaps stability can be more effectively implemented.

William VogtComment