In January of this year, at a distance of less than 2,800 miles from the United States, several Tupolev TU-160—Russian strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons—remained in Venezuela to perform joint military exercises with the armed forces of that country. Nicolas Maduro’s regime, with its strong political ties to Russia, China, Turkey, Syria, Cuba and Iran, has become a focus of political instability in Latin America. Additionally, the world’s largest reserves of crude oil (as certified by OPEC), and important reserves of gold, bauxite, iron, coal, diamonds and rare minerals such as coltan (appreciated in the electronics industry) have made Venezuela an important new geopolitical objective, for both allies and enemies.
The current Venezuelan crisis has transcended its borders to become more than just an internal political struggle between the government and the opposition. The conflict has intensified and expanded into an instrument of struggle between the US, Russia, China and various European allies. It is not easy to predict the winner of this fight.
The Russians maintain very strong economic and political allegiances with Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Russian capital investments in the crude oil and gold mining segments account for nearly 18 billion dollars—Venezuela’s cash flow is dependent on their evolution and stability. The Russians are the main suppliers of weapons and military equipment: Venezuela is the only country in Latin America whose armed forces are equipped with Kalasnikov AK103/AK104 assault rifles. Russia has also provided rocket launchers, tanks, remote control missiles, gunships, helicopters and several squadrons of Sukhoi 30 aircraft fighter bombers.
Russia’s intense presence in Venezuela is a strategic response by the Kremlin, designed to maintain its position in the battle for world supremacy. The confrontation between Russia, Europe and the US intensified with the latter powers’ refusal to transform the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) into the axis of European security, as requested by Moscow. Instead, European security was left in the hands of NATO, an institution whose original purpose was to oppose Russia, and was systematically expanded eastward. The situation was intensified by the European Union’s wave of expansion into the east.
The bombing of Belgrade and the occupation of Serbia by NATO, as well as the subsequent recognition of Kosovan independence, over Russian objections, could be seen as part of an indirect confrontation with Russia, as could support for the color revolutions in the Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, under the aegis of the Washington-led Freedom Agenda; and the infamous US effort to promote the construction of natural gas pipelines between the Caspian states—a very expensive process, designed to separate those countries from the sphere of Russian influence, while reducing their dependence on Russian hydrocarbons.
Russia has sought to undermine the UN Security Council, the only forum in which Moscow and Washington enjoy equal status. Some members of the Council have taken positions that appear to support America’s desire to nullify Russia’s influence. It took Russia eighteen years to gain admission to the World Trade Organization, in 2012—the WTO’s longest ever membership negotiation—due to Washington’s continual objections, which many consider a legacy of the Cold War.
These Russia-hostile international policies have rendered Russia’s relationship with the West highly fragile—a situation which may be exacerbated by Europe’s active intervention in the Ukraine issue.
One of Moscow’s responses to all this has been to support Venezuelan populism, in a bid to weaken the power of their western rivals. The destructuring of the western political establishment, the weakening of the network of Washington-controlled alliances (particularly NATO) and the breakdown of the European Union have all helped Russia achieve its major geostrategic goals without firing a shot. Russia’s strong position in Venezuela (which is part of the US backyard), is an attempt to goad America and send a warning. It is difficult for Washington to curb the progress of the Russians in Latin America because, in both economic and military terms, Venezuela is practically a satellite of Russia.
With the inauguration of Bush senior, the Cold War came to an end. In 1990, the new tenant of the White House began a new era of Latin American relations, based on the Initiative for the Americas, the most important element of which was the establishment of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), through which the US sought to negotiate multiple treaties—beginning with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Mexico and Canada. By a decade later, however, Latin American economics was characterized not by the FTAA, but by the ubiquity of China. Virtually out of nowhere, this distant Asian country became not only the primary or secondary trading partner of most countries in the region, particularly in the south, but also the region’s largest source of external financing. The US’s obsessive focus on the Middle East, following the events of September 11, might explain US passivity in the face of China’s assault on its historical sphere of influence.
Another important factor leveraged by China to expand its influence was the avalanche of left and center-left regimes in Latin America, which followed the arrival of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1989: Lula and Lagos in 2002; Nestor Kirchner in 2003; Tabaré Vásquez in 2004; Morales in 2005; Ortega, Correa, Bachelet and Zelaya in 2006; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2007; Lugo and Funes in 2009, Mujica in 2010; and Rousseff in 2011—accompanied by successive re-elections. Particularly significantly, South American leader Brazil was part of this process. In 2003, Washington and the countries of Latin America therefore agreed that the FTAA would not expand beyond the countries already involved in admission negotiations. This has all significantly weakened US influence in the region.
Many experts opine that China’s economic expansion helps explain the fact that the international system now provides increasing room for maneuver—especially in Latin America, in which states were empowered to develop their own preferred domestic and international policies. It is foreseeable that China will expand Latin American political opportunities—but it will do this primarily through trade, not through direct confrontation with the US, allowing US influence to implode by itself, something which will obviously require a serious response from the US. The tranquility—even passivity—with which the United States has allowed itself to be displaced by China in its access to raw materials is impressive. Especially since natural resources are usually considered safe and even strategic.
As part of its global positioning strategy, China, like Russia, has economically invaded America’s historic backyard. In Venezuela, in particular, Beijing has become the main foreign creditor. Owning billions of dollars in Venezuelan debt bonds has provided China with substantial privileges and economic advantages, allowing it to easily access oil and other strategic and rare mineral resources, such as coltan. This Chinese financial invasion has taken place right under Washington’s nose. Now that the US government feels the need to fix the Venezuelan political problem—because it is spilling out past national borders and affecting the political stability of its neighbors—Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and the entire region—they find themselves surprised to be negotiating with China. But any intervention in Venezuela would affect Chinese capital investments.
Perhaps, in the past, the US did not see China as a strategic rival: after all, the US facilitated China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization and was a coadjutant force in its economic development. These actions stemmed from the belief that Chinese economic development would naturally lead to the country’s pluralistic, democratic and liberal opening. These motives have since radically changed. Mauricio Macri’s 2015 electoral triumph in Argentina has resulted in a political avalanche of right and center-right governments in Latin America. In addition, Brazil has fallen into the hands of its most pro-American government since the military dictatorship.
The relationship between China and the US has been growing increasingly complex. In addition to Washington’s economic and technological constraints on Beijing (tariffs and strong restrictions on the Huawei technology giant), there are geopolitical restraints on the Asia-Pacific region. The US hopes to become dominant in that part of the world. But, over the past few years, China has become the hegemonic power in Asia and its natural aspiration is strategic parity with Washington: China does not aim at global strategic rivalry with the US, but shared primacy in that geographical area. China’s economic strength, which so far has been unaffected by global financial crises, is a very significant factor, which has not been taken into account.
Washington’s fundamental problem is that it will not share power, but will do whatever it takes to preserve its global primacy: the US can consult with other countries, but never negotiate with them on equal terms. It aims at significant, unlimited and unique power within the international system. Everything indicates that China wishes to change the Asian order, just as much as the US wishes to preserve it. China and the US’s geopolitical divergence has led to Washington’s militant attitude towards maritime disputes involving Beijing. By directly supporting all the regional countries that are involved in maritime disputes with China, and by challenging all the restrictions imposed by China, the US has become its greatest geostrategic rival.
The US position towards China has taken a 180 degree turn. In the words of the Economist:
Today convergence is dead. America has come to see China as a strategic rival—a malevolent actor and a rule-breaker. … Democrats and Republicans are vying to outdo each other in bashing China. Not since the late 1940s has the mood among American businessfolk, diplomats and the armed forces swung so rapidly behind the idea that the United States faces a new ideological and strategic rival.
All this suggests that Washington wishes to curb Chinese penetration into Latin America, which is currently strongest in Venezuela, which has therefore become a flashpoint for a US determined to confront China’s presence and influence in the region. Russia is also invested in Venezuela’s strategic and geopolitical importance. The US Government has just told Moscow that it has no business in a Latin American country, located just 2,800 miles from the United States. One thing is clear: Venezuela is currently a very important battleground in the international geopolitical struggle.