Venezuela has gained its right to political sovereignty through much suffering, a right to international political identity. This is a crucial factor enabling it to join the building of a true multipolar world or, to be more precise, a polycentric world order. It is the common orientation to this goal that underlies Russia’s strategic cooperation with both Venezuela and the rest of the Latin American region, writes Valdai Club expert Dmitry Razumovsky.
The confrontation in Venezuela has been mounting since January 2019, when the domestic political crisis reached a critical point. Hopes for the conflict settlement, first in the Norwegian and later in the Stockholm format, were dashed as was the expectation that the 2020 elections to the National Assembly would do the trick. On the contrary, the sides seemed to be doing their best to drive the situation into an absolute impasse. The increasingly tougher US sanctions played a tragic and destructive role of their own, even prompting the local folk to coin the term Viernes de sanciones (“Friday sanctions”).
But unexpectedly for many analysts, the first half of 2021 has generated hopes for an improvement. In many respects, this has resulted from the constructive moves undertaken by the national authorities led by President Nicolas Maduro, whom his opponents had usually criticised for intractability and reluctance to make concessions. The government appointed two opposition representatives to the Electoral Council and started a dialogue with the EU to invite a technical commission and monitors to Venezuela’s regional elections scheduled for November 2021. All of these unequivocally constructive official gestures have met with a positive response from the constructive wing of the opposition, including its charismatic leaders such as Henrique Capriles.
Is this official readiness to compromise a sign of weakness or a show of strength and confidence? It must be admitted that the Maduro government’s position is still highly precarious, given the continuing sanctions and a severe humanitarian crisis in the country. But recently the stars have formed a configuration that favours the Chavista leader. We can identify a number of circumstances that give hope for positive evolution in foreign and domestic policies.
First of all, one must point to a changed regional context in Latin America. Today, we can confidently say that the attempts to form a regional anti-Maduro solidarity movement have failed. After the formal Argentine withdrawal and an informal suspension of membership by Bolivia, the Lima Group is no longer the important regional actor as it was in late 2018 and early 2019. Created with an ambition to promote democracy, the PROSUR bloc was supposed to replace the weakened and actually disbanded UNASUR, but it proved unable to distinguish itself in any way either. And this is not surprising because a coalition against someone is less enduring than a union pursuing a positive agenda. UNASUR, created under the leadership of Venezuela and Hugo Chavez, was precisely an association of this kind, where it was possible to work on pragmatic and essential things like infrastructure, energy, financial development institutions, security, healthcare, and others. The South American region felt the consequences of the disintegration of certain sectoral councils, such as that on healthcare, during the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. There were no other regional cooperation institutions left.
The US-supported regional attempts to form a united right-wing front against the Nicolas Maduro government failed, something that can be listed as an undoubted success of the Venezuelan authorities, if not always resulting from their direct efforts. Today, Venezuela can rely on the support of two important regional players – Mexico and Argentina – although their positions do not always fully concur. The left-wing comeback in Bolivia and Pedro Castillo’s unexpected (albeit with a tiny edge) preliminary victory in Peru, which many analysts did not predict, can also be perceived as positive developments for Venezuela.
But at the same time, the likelihood of an alternative pro-Venezuela unity in the region should be assessed accurately and with reserve. The left-wing elites in Bolivia and Peru are not strong enough and are held in check (or will be held in check) by a great number of restrictions and the need to abide by certain domestic political compromises. The Mexican and Argentine positions will be determined by the Maduro government’s further steps to establish dialogue with all parts of the Venezuelan public and with the political forces, including within the framework of electoral processes, even though, as noted earlier, there is ground for optimism in this regard.
Another positive aspect for the Chavistas is the emergence of a new global geopolitical situation related primarily to the change of guard in Washington. The destructive and non-productive position held by the Washington hawks led by John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Elliott Abrams during the Trump presidency has, as expected, led not only to zero results but also to disenchantment on the part of a significant section of the US elite. Soon, we are likely to see some new White House approaches to collaboration with Latin America. So far, Joe Biden has failed to show much mettle on the Latin American track, being focused as he is on organising a global alliance against Beijing. Not so long ago, Nicolas Maduro noted that he “got no positive signal from Biden.” It is hard to judge and predict what the US actions vis-à-vis Caracas will eventually be. But experts, including those in close contact with the leading US think tanks, are increasingly vocal in articulating absolutely sound and constructive ideas to the effect that tough pressure policies are basically ineffective and that denying legitimacy to an elected president and insisting on a regime change while lacking the mechanisms for implementing this inside the country is a dead end.
Shifts in the EU position on Venezuela also provide certain grounds for optimism. The June statement by High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell to the effect that they are studying possibilities of sending monitors to the November regional elections could make these legitimate as far as the international community is concerned and finally furnish a tool capable of healing the civil split and helping the authorities regain full legitimacy in the eyes of all strata of Venezuelan society. However, stripped of the right to hold leading positions in his party, Juan Guaido is still in the mood to ignore the elections like he did last year. Recently, the young leader has often invited criticism, including from his more radical colleagues in the opposition. With the arrival of an EU monitoring mission on the cards, his refusal to take part in the elections is perceived as weakness. But in fact the Maduro government ought to stick to its guns and secure the participation rights of all the main players, including Guaido. Symbolically, the EU no longer looks upon Juan Guaido as an acting president. For the Europeans, he is the main opposition leader and a privileged negotiator.
The EU has shifted its focus to dealing with the disastrous humanitarian situation in Venezuela and this also gives hope that an end will be put to the excessive politicisation of this issue. Many Europeans were outraged by the US refusal to put Venezuela on the vaccine recipient list. So far, however, the main effort is directed at aiding Venezuelan migrants rather than at supporting the remaining population, who are suffering from the economic isolation.
Sanctions are a third important aspect that unites Venezuela and Russia. Lawyers would describe it more correctly as a US policy of unilateral restrictive measures. The Venezuelan case may serve as a lesson to Washington that has, for a number of years, consistently escalated sanctions pressure on Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba and other countries. Many experts in the US itself grew apprehensive – and with good reason – that driving huge economic sectors and, in fact, the entire economy in a country as big as Venezuela into the shadow is a sword that cuts both ways. By excluding from the dollar zone increasingly greater segments of the world economy, which cannot disappear into thin air, Washington is encouraging the development and sophistication of mechanisms for circumventing these restrictions and for dollar evasion in settlements. Washington is seriously concerned over this risk and this is perhaps the reason why we are witnessing examples of a selected easing or cessation of the drive to escalate sanctions. At least, the “Friday sanctions” that the Venezuelan government has grown accustomed to are no longer in place.
But it is futile to expect a full removal of the sanctions imposed on Venezuela. Nonetheless, Washington has a lot of tools, such as targeted alleviations or exemptions from the sanctions regime, which may considerably alter and ease the situation. The Venezuelan energy sector urgently needs these alleviations to revive and modernise. It also needs the necessary equipment to provide for infrastructure safety, protect the environment and restore lifelines.
People in Russia and Venezuela often say that through its tough economic pressure Washington has deprived itself of its main trump card, the moral one.
Apart from the foreign policy context, there is progress at home. Despite charges coming from a portion of the opposition, the Nicolas Maduro government is taking steps to settle the domestic political crisis. Aside from the already-mentioned move to form a new Electoral Council, Maduro has scored another point by initiating a new round of talks involving much progress on his readiness to make concessions and even hold a referendum on an early termination of his presidential powers in 2022. These shifts have inspired the moderate Venezuelan opposition which is hoping that by participating in the elections it will acquire new leaders instead of the patently weak and no longer popular Juan Guaido.
The moderate opposition has also welcomed the fact that the Maduro government is working on a humanitarian aid agreement that will make it possible to solve the problem of the excessive politicisation of this vital matter. This is also a step in the right direction leading to national accord and enabling the resolution of acute social problems.
Russia, as it has been repeatedly declared at the official level, is interested in a peaceful settlement of the internal political crisis in Venezuela. Therefore, the above events are certainly helping to strengthen both countries’ relations that have withstood an endurance test in recent years in the face of a series of crises and challenges. It is common knowledge that Russia was helping Venezuela in critical situations. But there are things for which Moscow can also be grateful to Caracas. For example, Venezuela was one of the first to start testing the Sputnik V vaccine, back in October 2020. The two countries have repeatedly supported each other and acted jointly at multilateral institutions.
But there is yet another thing of importance for Russia: Venezuela has gained its right to political sovereignty through much suffering, a right to international political identity. This is a crucial factor enabling it to join the building of a true multipolar world or, to be more precise, a polycentric world order. It is the common orientation to this goal that underlies Russia’s strategic cooperation with both Venezuela and the rest of the Latin American region.