BOGOTÁ Venezuela's late leader, Hugo Chávez, read widely on China before his first presidential trip there in 2000. Yet he knew very little as he descended onto the tarmac and gave the official receiving him a vigorous hug. For a nation that despises corporal expressions of affection, Chávez had just inaugurated his role as a useful idiot, which he would play the rest of his life.

A Chinese proverb teaches that you will know a person by his friends, and the world's paramount authoritarian state welcomed Chávez many times in the decade after 2000. The state news agency Xinhua described him then as "an old friend of the Chinese people," a title used before for people like Fidel Castro, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, Cambodia's genocidal ruler Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein or Robert Mugabe.

Chávez proudly took his place in this fraternity of criminals who were also, depending on your point of view, champions of oppressed peoples against European and U.S. imperialism. It seems politics, like quantum physics, can include two simultaneous opposites. From an anti-imperialist standpoint, it was morally acceptable for these rulers to oppress their peoples. The alchemy of national pride makes domestic oppression nobler than foreign oppression.

China is more at ease with secrets talks.

Yet as China undertook the path of economic liberalization, its foreign policy became obsolete. Its trade depended on Europe and the United States, in spite of its ideological affinity with socialist states (or at least any state that did not criticize its police-state practices or the oppression of ethnic groups in regions like Tibet and Xinjiang). But Chinese pragmatism found a solution: its economic and diplomatic ties with the West deepened, and it just ignored Western strictures against authoritarian regimes. It had its ideology, and its own, flexible interpretations of democracy, rights and rule of law. It thus came to enjoy the best of both worlds, yin and yang, profiting enormously from the clash of opposites that made sense within the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.

In the first decade of this century, Latin America generally gave an excessively ideological quality to its relations with China. While right-wing governments viewed it with too much distrust, those of the Left, enthralled by the fantasy of forging an anti-imperialist axis, moved toward China with unmitigated trust. The first group lost some economic opportunities, and the second handed over too much in its eagerness to generate political goodwill.

Venezuela was the first country to yield to the new China's economic seduction, or was at least the most zealous, as it sought cooperation with powers that would counter U.S. hostility. The United States was then blocking arms sales to Venezuela and, according to Chávez, had plotted the failed coup of 2002.

China loaned Venezuela $60 billion between 2001 and 2017, under opaque conditions and according to published figures that would still need verification. The country still owes China $20 billion and meanwhile, as repayment, sends it some 350,000 barrels of oil a day, a quarter of its output. In 2018, after receiving an additional loan of $5 billion, Venezuela promised to send one million barrels a day, or three quarters of its production. This has never happened, and China may start to view the opposition leader Juan Guaidó,

China did not wager its geopolitical standing on the Bolivarian revolution.

Speaker of the National Assembly, as a more suitable ally than Nicolás Maduro. Venezuela is in such dire straits that President Maduro may find it impossible to honor his commitments.

The important thing is for the debts to be repaid, for oil to flow, and for China to get something from the political transition. In contrast with Russia, it did not wager its geopolitical standing on the Bolivarian revolution.

Such a maneuver from China in the Venezuelan crisis is not incomprehensible: backing Guaidó makes sense, so China would do it willingly but discreetly, and not until the transition is practically a done deal. China is more at ease with secrets talks than public diplomacy. And I'd bet those private conversations have already begun.

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