Venezuela's fate is becoming a strategic stake and source of conflict between Western democracies and increasingly aligned rivals, China and Russia.
BOGOTÁ — With the Lima Group of Latin American states ruling out military intervention against Venezuela's socialist regime, a negotiated transition has become the only way to restore democracy there. The question remains, however: Does ending the crisis depend on Venezuelans alone?
Those who insist Venezuelans are the only ones who can resolve the current humanitarian and political disaster in their country are mistakenly overlooking the extra-regional dimension of events. Both the efforts of the Contact Group, which brings together a handful of European and Latin American countries, and the proposal of Mexico and Uruguay to activate the Montevideo Mechanism to restart talks between the government and the opposition, are chimeras if they do not involve Russia and China in the negotiations. There will be no democratic transition without a multilateral rapprochement with Moscow and Beijing, which back President Nicolás Maduro. Like it or not, Venezuela is not the exclusive concern of the United States, Colombia and Brazil.
Russians have come to stay in Venezuela, and they will not give up the influence they have acquired over the Venezuelan state and armed forces. Igor Sechin, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin and head of the Rosneft state oil firm, has in recent years gotten privileged access to Maduro and his inner circle.
There will be no democratic transition without a multilateral rapprochement with Moscow and Beijing.
A recent investigation by the Reuters news agency cited Rosneft executives revealing that most of the Russian company's recent investments have entailed massive losses and a ballooning debt. Why invest in a country in crisis? The answer, obviously, is political. Investment in Venezuela has given Russia a tactical role in the Caribbean, boosting its image as a world power. Venezuela is not just a buyer of Russian arms but a military ally with which it can carry out naval and air exercises uncontrolled by the United States and the European Union — as it happened in December 2018, when two supersonic Russian bombers landed at Maiquetía airport outside Caracas. The TU-160 were the same plane model involved in a 2013 diplomatic incident with Colombia during joint exercises by Russia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Russia's role in Venezuela complements China's financial and commercial expansion, whose impact has been to considerably change the hemisphere's economic structure. As Brazil's main trading partner and large-scale creditor of countries around the region, China has in the last 15 years loaned more money to Latin America than the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund together. Venezuela alone owes China around 54 billion euros to be paid in crude oil, equivalent to 40% of all Latin American debt to China (the figures are from Inter-American Dialogue and Boston University). While we do not know exactly how much China has invested in Venezuela annually or how much of its credits are now repaid, Venezuela's severe liquidity problem makes the country dependent on Chinese loans. For China to reduce support for the Maduro government, it would have to be assured that its loans will be repaid, whatever the transition's outcome.
Will the Russians and Chinese accept an incipient transition to democracy here, renouncing a strategic position in the Caribbean and the money loaned to Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez? Evidently not. Regime change in Venezuela is thus going to depend on variables outside the Western Hemisphere and on an unpredictable strategic game whose aim is to weaken the United States and its allies, without deliberately bringing about a clash of the great powers.