MOSCOW - When word first came out in 2011 that Hugo Chavez was suffering from a serious illness, a Russian military source predicted the consequences of the end of the Chavez era: not only could Moscow lose contracts already signed, but it might also never get paid for weapons it has already delivered to Caracas.
Russia has a lot to lose in Venezuela. In total, experts estimate that the projects that Moscow had inked with Chavez are worth no less than $30 billion. And now the guarantor is gone.
People started to expect an announcement regarding Chavez’s death on Tuesday, when his official successor Nicolas Maduro called an urgent meeting with the country’s leadership. But the vice-president only said that the president “was going through his worst hours since Dec. 11 (when Chavez underwent an operation for his cancer),” and used the opportunity to accuse Venezuela’s enemies of provoking Chavez’s illness.
Nicolas Maduro said that America’s military attaché, David Delmonaco, would be removed because he was destabilizing the country. A couple of hours later, the vice-president was on the TV again. “Commandante Hugo Chavez died at 4:25 p.m. local time,” he announced with a shaky voice, and called on Venezuelans to come together and wipe away their tears. “Viva Hugo Chavez,” he said, raising his fist in a symbol of victory.
Thousands of people filled the streets in Caracas, and Venezuela entered a weeklong national mourning. Chavez was buried on Friday, and Russia sent the head of Rosneft energy giant Igor Sechin, Minister of Industry Denis Manturov and the general director of Rostechnology.
Now Venezuela is preparing to elect a new president. No matter who wins, whether it is Chavez’s designated successor or the opposition candidate, experts say that there will likely be serious changes.
“No new government is going to continue the sharp anti-Americanism that Chavez governed with," explained Fedor Lukyanov, a representative of the Russian Council on Foreign Relations. " If Maduro wins , the relationship between Caracas and Washington will improve. If the opposition wins, then the country will totally reorient itself towards the United States.”
The Kremlin has expressed hope that “the positive and constructive Russian-Venezuelan relations will remain unchanged.” But Lukyanov is convinced to the contrary: “The 2000s were an anomaly, when Venezuela became one of Russia’s most important world trade partners, and that anomaly is unlikely to survive Chavez’s death, because it was connected to Chavez personally, to his personal political views and ambitions.”
Another experts says: “many of the agreements between Caracas and Moscow will remain, at least on paper, but others will likely be revisited.”
False friendships, mythical deals
Vladimir Semago, the vice-head of the Russian-Venezuelan Commerce Council is even more emphatic. “Now that Hugo Chavez is gone, all of this pretense of friendship with Venezuela will go, too,” he told Kommersant. “There was never any real partnership between our countries, there were only attempts to convince Russians that Moscow was colonizing Latin America, like it did in Africa during Soviet times .”
According to Semago, one of the most ambitious projects – the creation of an oil consortium that is a partnership between the Russian national companies and the Venezuelan oil company – is a “total myth.”
“The consortium was never allowed to do anything and never accomplished anything. There were only ever two Russian companies that were interested, anyway,” Semago explained.
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Chavez and Putin in 2004 - Photo: Kremlin
There are even more questions about the future of Russian-Venezuelan military partnerships, because those deals were always intimately connected to Chavez himself. When Chavez visited Moscow in 2004, he signed the first two major military contracts, for over $550 million worth of military equipment . “The work was hard, but as soon as Chavez got involved, it was like there was suddenly understanding on both sides,” said a source familiar with the negotiations. “And in all of the subsequent weapons negotiations he took a very direct role.”
In 2011, Chavez was able to get an agreement for Russia to extend a $4 billion dollar credit to Venezuela for weapons purchases. “Even though extending this credit was basically suicide, we still did it, because it was important for us to maintain a good relationship with Caracas,” explained a source in the Federal service for military partnerships. “But when it became clear that you couldn’t have a dialogue with anyone but Chavez himself, the other members of the Venezuelan delegation stopped making an effort to work with us.”