What will the outcome be?
Mural in Caracas, Venezuela of Hugo Chavez, Nicolás Maduro, Simón Bolívar, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara. (Credit: casadaphoto/Bigstock.com) (via: bit.ly)

The crisis in Venezuela is occupying the headlines and key spaces of the international media. Three headline-grabbing issues are attracting the media’s attention: images of the humanitarian crisis, with the departure of thousands of emigrants fleeing from the economic chaos; the demonstrations for and against the government of Nicolás Maduro; and most recently, the public statements of the self-proclaimed president, Juan Guaidó.

But what is really going on in Venezuela? Is there a dictatorship in power that is being challenged by its people (as alleged by segments of the Venezuelan right and the US establishment)? Is it a country suffering from a hybrid war – such as we have seen in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa – finally stifled and leaving a trail of destruction and death? Or is it a geopolitical dispute involving ambitions for the domination of natural resources and strategic positions in Latin America, between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and China, Russia, Iran, etc. on the other?

The scenario is complex, but it is possible to make a deeper analysis, thus enabling us to have a better understanding of the situation.

Let’s start with oil. Data from the US Energy Information Administration confirms that as of January 2018, Venezuela had the largest proved oil reserves in the world (302 billion barrels), surpassing the individual reserves of Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Iran, in that order. In the first years of his administration, President Hugo Chávez created an instrument, PetroCaribe (2005), establishing an oil alliance between Venezuela and 15 countries of the Caribbean and Central America in order to contribute to economic autonomy and the development of the region through South-South cooperation. The initiative, which in addition to the selling of oil at preferential prices, included the supply of gas and electricity, remains to this day. But in recent years PetroCaribe lost its effectiveness because Venezuela had to prioritise exports to other partners, such as Russia, China, and India.

In addition to this initiative, the Chavez government was one of the main promoters of South American[1] integration, through the founding of the Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, in 2008. With the founding of UNASUR, came a pioneering development plan, which provided for the use of the region’s huge potential in natural resources to promote deep social and economic transformations aimed at consolidating the member countries‘ sovereignty. The plan was complemented by a proposal for bold security and defense integration via the Latin American Defense Council, also founded in 2008, which provided for a certain degree of regional military coordination. In 2010, Venezuela was also a key player in establishing the Community of Latin American States (CELAC) With 33 member countries, CELAC expanded integration throughout Latin America without exception.

The UNASUR and CELAC proposals, from which the US was excluded, found united support in other countries governed by progressive forces – Brazil and Argentina in particular, but also Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, and, during a certain period, Paraguay. The longing for Latin American integration has historically challenged the so-called Monroe Doctrine used by the US since the 19th century to defend and legitimise its aspiration to control the entire American continent.[2]

Today, all Latin American diplomatic initiatives of the early 21st century are in crisis as a consequence of drastic political changes, especially in the South American countries. Venezuela has been isolated since only Bolivia and Uruguay maintain progressive governments, and the scenario became more adverse with the Trump administration’s policies in the region, which do not hide the US government’s interventionist bias. The death of Chávez meant a considerable setback for the Venezuelan economic and social transformation process, since Nicolás Maduro has neither the charisma nor the leadership qualities of his predecessor. But these are not the main reasons for the current crisis.

We have to look deeper to understand the catastrophic effect of the diplomatic isolation suffered by Venezuela, together with the impact of the sanctions and the economic embargo imposed by the US.[3] Oil exports have fallen dramatically (admittedly not only because of isolationist policies, sanctions, and the embargo, but also because of mismanagement and corruption on the part of the Venezuelan government). The fall in oil revenue receipts – on which the entire Venezuelan economy still depends greatly – has led to a drop in the supply of jobs and contributes to shortages of food and medicine. Without options, the most fragile part of the population began to emigrate, trying to survive outside the country. Despite all of these adversities, Nicolás Maduro’s government managed to win the last presidential elections, which were disputed by an angry opposition and attested as legitimate by numerous international organisations.[4]

As previously mentioned, the Trump government, considering the Maduro/Chávez legacy something to be defeated, has been interfering in Venezuela through multiple means and without sparing resources (the media, financial assistance to the opposition, political and diplomatic initiatives, covert operations, etc.). But since the last election, the Trump administration has expanded its arsenal of destabilising instruments, even threatening the use of military force. One of Trump’s latest moves was to pressure European governments to recognise Juan Guaidó as president, without bothering to disguise the total lack of legitimacy of that option. Thus, now the ‘regime change’ can no longer be denied.

Predicting the outcome of the crisis in Venezuela is not easy. Changes in the international landscape during the early 21st century have already shown the growing influence of China and Russia. Though forgotten for a while, the geopolitical concept of Eurasia is now again at the forefront, illustrating the shift of hegemony to the East, to the detriment of the West’s global importance. This change has revived the vocabulary and logic of the Cold War in some circles, and the consequences are being felt in Latin America. Therefore, they must be taken into account when analysing the crisis in Venezuela.

In fact, Venezuela seems to have become a testing ground for the new foreign policy of the United States in the face of its geopolitical rivals, China and Russia. Trump wants to make it clear to Beijing and Moscow that Latin America must once again be a sphere of US influence and remain so. “Venezuela is an ideological battleground”, Ben Rowswell, Canadian ambassador to Venezuela from 2014-2017, admitted to CNN last week. Canada, following the US, has proclaimed its support for Guaidó.

None of this has happened by chance. In recent years, Russia and China have made important investments in Latin America and the Caribbean.[5] Venezuela is not an exception. The country received crucial investments, mainly in the oil industry. A joint venture between the Chinese oil company CNPC and Venezuela’s PDVSA was the key to doubling Venezuelan oil production in 2018. Additionally, Russia has made significant sales of arms and military equipment (including Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets[6]) that have transformed Venezuela’s Armed Forces into one of the most powerful in the region.

In view of the dramatic consequences of regime change on other continents, the most adequate solution to the crisis, which would respect international law and save many lives, is the one that drives Mexico and Uruguay, with the support of Bolivia, providing for dialogue at the negotiating table as an alternative to any military option.[7]

It remains to be seen whether there is still time and if there is the political will to implement it.


[1] South America is defined by geographical borders, reaching from the Panama Isthmus to Cape Horn in Argentina. Latin America is characterised by a commonality between elements of historical experience, language, and culture. The concept of Latin America also includes the islands of the Caribbean. The peoples of Latin America shared the experience of conquest and colonization by the Spaniards and Portuguese from the late 15th through the 18th century. They also shared the struggle for independence from colonial rule in the early 19th century. Following independence, many of these countries experienced similar trends.

[2] The popular version of the Monroe Doctrine is ‘America for the (North)Americans’.

[3] In January 2018, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the state-owned oil company of Venezuela, PDVSA.The sanctions include a freeze on any assets that PDVSA has in US jurisdictions and bar US citizens from doingbusiness with the company.

[4] Venezuela’s opposition controls the National Assembly, of which Mr Guaidó was the head.

[5] In November 2008, the Chinese government approved, for the first time, a document that summarised its policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean. (Policy paper on Latin America and the Caribbean). An analysis in English of that document is available at: http://www.mfa.gov.cn/eng/zxxx/t521025.htm

[6] The Sukhoi Su-30 is a twin-engine, two-seat supermaneuverable fighter aircraft developed by Russia’s Sukhoi Aviation Corporation.

[7] On 6 February. the Mexican and Uruguayan proposal won the support of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), composed of Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Surinam, Montserrat, and Trinidad and Tobago). The CARICOM considered the Mexican-Uruguayan proposal capable of creating „the necessary conditions for a comprehensive and lasting solution“ to the crisis in Venezuela. The initiative calls the Venezuelan government and the political opposition for the immediate start of negotiations leading to a solution „within a reasonable period.“ The two governments pointed out that the complexity of the present circumstances does not justify dismissing a diplomatic solution.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the original author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views and opinions of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, its co-founders, or its staff members.
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Beatriz Bissio

Promovierte Historikerin (Universidade Federal Fluminense, UFF, Brasilien),

Dozentin am Lehrstuhl für Politikwissenschaft, Bundesuniversität Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Koordinatorin des Forschungszentrums für Interdisziplinäre Studien: Afrika, Asien und Süd-Süd-Beziehungen (UFRJ). Beatriz Bissio kommt ursprünglich aus Uruguay und ist eingebürgerte Brasilianerin. Sie war mehr als zwanzig Jahre international als Journalistin tätig, arbeitete als Korrespondentin für verschiedene lateinamerikanische Medien und als Gründerin, Chefredakteurin und Herausgeberin für drei Zeitschriften: Third World (1974-2006), Ecology and Development (1991-2006) und Revista do Mercosur (1992-2006). Sie interviewte Persönlichkeiten wie Nelson Mandela, Agostinho Neto, Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Samora Machel, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Xanana Gusmao, Julius Nyerere, General Omar Torrijos und General Velasco Alvarado. Ehemalige Koordinatorin des brasilianischen Ausschusses für internationale Beziehungen für den Bundesstaat Maranhão (während der Amtszeit von Dr. JacksonLago: 2007-2009). Vorsitzende der NGO „Dialogues of the South“. Bissio gewann den Vladimir-Herzog￾Preis und den Goldenen Delfin 2000 für ihre journalistischen Arbeiten. Am 8. Mai 2013 wurde ihr von Verteidigungsminister und Ex-Botschafter Celso Amorim die „Victory Medal” verliehen.