The isolation of the Venezuelan government continues to grow, as the United States and countries from throughout Latin America and Europe are imposing individual and economic sanctions on the regime of President Nicolás Maduro. Meanwhile, Russia has remained one of Venezuela’s staunchest allies. As Washington threatens to pursue harsher sanctions, Venezuela has turned to Russia as a source of economic and military support, offering the Kremlin, in turn, a useful platform to expand its influence in Latin America. The Wilson Center’s Latin American Program and Kennan Institute partnered to host a panel discussion on Russia’s role in the Venezuela crisis.
“The United States has not had ties with the Venezuelan military in nearly two decades, and Russia, China and Cuba have filled that space”( Fonseca told ) . “The Russians and the Chinese have replaced the United States as a key partner to the Venezuelan military.”
Venezuelan military officers have been attending Russian and Chinese military schools for years, and Venezuela is the biggest buyer of Russian and Chinese military equipment. In addition, there are large numbers of Cuban advisers across the Venezuelan security apparatus, he said.
Both experts, with whom I talked separately in recent days, agree that it will be hard for Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro to cling to power for much longer, and that Venezuela’s sham May 20 election will not help him revert his economic and political troubles.
Venezuela’s economy has collapsed, and inflation is expected to reach 13,000 percent — the highest in the world — this year, according to International Monetary Fund estimates. The humanitarian crisis is worsening by the day, to the point that the minimum salary has fallen to $3.6 dollars a month — barely enough to buy two cans of tuna.
Oil production, which accounts for 90 percent of Venezuela’s income, has plummeted from 3.5 billion barrels twenty years ago to less than 1.5 billion barrels today. Five of the six oil refineries on Venezuelan territory are nearly paralyzed, and Venezuela’s creditors are starting to go after the country’s assets.
Amid this rapid descent into chaos, Russia and China — which have major oil investments in Venezuela – may have decided it’s time to change management to protect their interests, Ellis and Fonseca say.
VENEZUELA has struck a last-ditch deal with Russia to delay the repayment of more than $3billion of its crippling debts as the South American nation teeters on the edge of financial collapse.
Under the lifeline restructuring agreement, the Kremlin offered “very favourable” terms under which payments would be “minimal” for six years.
The full amount of $3.15billion would then need to be paid back within four years.
The Trump Administration’s not-so-veiled calls for a coup in Venezuela could be an additional factor prompting Russia or China to step in. White House Senior Director for Latin America, Juan Cruz, recently called on the Venezuelan military “to respect the oath they took to perform their functions” and defend the Venezuelan constitution, rather than the Maduro dictatorship.
Fonseca told me that “Russia or China could sense that the United States is edging closer and closer to action in Venezuela, and that if a pro-U.S. regime comes to power, that could dilute their respective interests in Venezuela.”
Ellis, of the U.S. Army War College, says that a Russia and China-backed coup could help both countries get additional rights to exploit Venezuela’s oil fields. In exchange, China and Russia may offer new grace periods on Venezuela’s debts and technical assistance to revamp the country’s oil production.
“The Chinese and Russians would be running the oil fields, paying off the corrupt Venezuelan elites, and paying enough rent to keep the Venezuelan military happy, while extracting oil for their own strategic benefit,” Ellis told me. “That would assure them the continuation of a friendly regime in close proximity to U.S. shores.”
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Ellis said that “the Russians and the Chinese would be running the country. And, as long as there were no Russian or Chinese military bases, there would be those in Washington who would say that it wouldn’t be a problem.” He added, “That would be a big mistake.”
My opinion: As Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis continues to worsen, nobody can rule out a new popular uprising or a military rebellion.
But concerns have been raised over how much control the deal will grant Moscow over President Nicolas Maduro’s bankrupt nation, which owes an eye-watering $150billion to creditors all over the world.
And some experts have warned of a new ‘Cold War’ in South America as Russia, and Venezuela’s other major creditor China, increase their influence on the continent.
But after listening to Ellis and Fonseca, I’m not willing to bet that a military coup would necessarily bringbout a restoration of democracy and a more U.S.-friendly government. It could could also produce a more efficiently-run Russian or Chinese economic protectorate.
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