In Venezuela, an Isolated Maduro Searches for Allies Across the Globe

January 30, 2019

Last week, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself the country’s interim president in accordance with Venezuela’s constitutional provisions. Shortly after, the Trump administration swiftly proclaimed its support for Guaidó. The majority of the Lima Group, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Guyana, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru, also recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela.

While the events constituted a new legitimacy crisis for sitting President Nicolas Maduro, regional actors have from the outset rejected the results of Venezuela’s 2018 elections, in which Maduro won a second term as president. Maduro’s government has become increasingly isolated in the Western Hemisphere. Repression, human rights violations, economic crisis, severe shortages and widespread corruption cases have all accelerated the regime’s regional isolation. In addition, the continued presence of Venezuelan migrants throughout Latin America threatens to strain economies and deepen political tensions in host countries.

Souring diplomatic relations within the region have pushed Maduro to increase and deepen his ties with non-Western Hemisphere states. Eager to show their financial and diplomatic support to troubled Venezuela, these countries, some of whom are ideologically sympathetic to Maduro and many of whom have financial interests in Venezuela, have awarded the embattled leader a degree of international legitimacy. Even as he maintains ties with Venezuela’s more traditional non-Western Hemisphere allies (Russia, China, and Iran), Maduro is employing a unique blend of personal diplomacy, financial incentives, and ideological convergence to diversify his base of allies, ensure a steady cash flow to the regime, and gain room to maneuver in both domestic and international politics.

A Pariah in the Western Hemisphere

In the late 1990s and the 2000s, Latin America experienced a “Pink Tide,” as a wave of leftist governments took power in the region. This surge, which began with the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1998, created a fertile environment for Chavez and then for his successor, Maduro. However, the Pink Tide has begun to recede as right-wing parties, skeptics of the Maduro regime, once again take power in Latin America.

In Argentina, former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a leftist ally and supporter of the Chavez and Maduro regimes, lost the elections in 2015 and was replaced by the center-right Mauricio Macri. In contrast to his predecessor, Macri has adopted a harsh policy toward Maduro’s government, declining to recognize the legitimacy of Maduro as president and backing the Venezuelan opposition leader.

Venezuela’s relations with Brazil have also deteriorated since the latter country’s center-right president, Michel Temer, replaced left-wing leader Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro won a sweeping victory in Brazil’s October 2018 presidential election. He has also shown signs of a tough policy toward Maduro, with his campaign team even hinting at military action against Venezuela. Bolsonaro’s government recently issued a statement saying it recognized Guaidó as “the rightful president.”

Ecuador was another loyal regional ally of Venezuela following the election of President Rafael Correa in 2007. But after the recent handover of power to Lenin Moreno, Ecuadorian policy towards Venezuela dramatically shifted. Diplomatic ties have recently been severed between the two countries over “offensive comments” made by the Venezuelan communication minister toward Moreno. As a result, Ecuador expelled Venezuela’s ambassador to Quito while the Venezuelan authorities have declared Ecuador’s chargé d’affaires in Caracas persona non grata. Ecuador also followed other members of the Lima Group and recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president.

Others followed: After Maduro’s swearing-in, Peru and Paraguay decided to cut diplomatic ties with Venezuela and withdraw their diplomats.

However, the regional picture is not totally bleak for Maduro. A few in the region, including Cuba, Bolivia, El Salvador and Nicaragua continue to support him. In addition, Mexico, where leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office last year, has dropped the previous government’s critical policy toward the Maduro regime and backed Maduro’s government after Guaidó’s announcement. Lopez Obrador also invited Maduro to his December 1 inauguration. Mexico was the only member of the Lima Group not to sign a statement in early January calling on Maduro to transfer power to the democratically elected legislature.

Uruguay also sided with Mexico and declined to recognize the opposition leader as the interim president, urging all internal and external parties involved in the crisis to prevent an escalation of violence.

Maduro’s Alternative Allies

While the Maduro administration is under heightened pressure from the Western Hemisphere, it has retained the support of Russia and China, allies who have played a crucial role in keeping the Venezuelan regime afloat through loans and other contributions. China has been providing loans estimated at around $70 billion in several installments since 2008, most to be paid back in Venezuelan oil. For its part, in addition to the loans and financial relief, Russia has signed major arms sale contracts with Venezuela since 2006, projected to be worth $11 billion.

Much of the attention on Venezuela’s non-hemispheric allies has focused on China and Russia. Yet, in the face of an unprecedented legitimacy crisis, Caracas has deepened its alliances with a group of lower-profile — and sometimes like-minded — regimes across the globe. These countries have become vital partners, filling the void at a time when Maduro is struggling diplomatically in his own region. The map below shows how the world reacted to the Venezuelan presidential elections. In addition to Russia, China and Iran, other notable countries that recognized the results included Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Vietnam and Belarus. Political, economic and military engagements have gradually increased in recent years between Venezuela and several of these countries. This article will focus on Turkey, Egypt, India, Azerbaijan, Qatar and Belarus.

Countries that recognized Venezuela’s presidential election

Source: New York Times, Hurriyet Daily News and other news reports.

With some exceptions, the countries that support Maduro seem to share a number of motivations. First, many of their leaders share Maduro’s preference for personalized diplomacy, considering leader-to-leader relations the most efficient way to reach deals rather than establishing institutional ties. Second, most of Maduro’s newer allies have commercial interests in Venezuela. Third, the countries share some political and ideological ties, including authoritarian tendencies, a sense of regional isolation, and a common resentment toward externally imposed sanctions.

Personalized Diplomacy

Cozy personal relationships between Maduro and a number of partners outside the Western hemisphere seem to have created mutual trust and, in some cases, laid the groundwork for lucrative commercial relationships. Maduro appears to be a useful negotiating partner, given his tight hold on Venezuelan politics and monopoly on the country’s resources. Close personal relations with Maduro give potential allies a strong foothold in Venezuela, which may open the door to sweeping projects and multibillion-dollar investments. The personal relations between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Maduro are a good example of this argument. Maduro praises Erdogan as a friend and “leader of the new multi-polar world,” while Erdogan said his “friend” was facing “manipulative attacks from certain countries and acts of sabotage from economic assassins.” In the last two years, the Venezuelan president has visited Turkey four times while Erdogan recently paid an official visit to Venezuela in December. Using these cozy relations, Turkey has rapidly gained a lucrative foothold in Venezuela. Bilateral cooperation on trade, finance, energy, tourism, and aviation has reached unprecedented levels. Erdogan has enthusiastically stood by the embattled Maduro regime during the recent crisis.

Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus also offers an example of good personal relations between the political leaders. Belarus and Venezuela have developed a friendly economic and strategic partnership. They have sought to bolster military ties. Maduro paid an official visit to Belarus in 2017 to accelerate the positive momentum, and Lukashenko expressed his support to Maduro after Guaidó declared himself president.

Egypt’s Sisi is another non-hemispheric country seeking to strengthen leader-to-leader ties with the Maduro regime. Sisi was among the first leaders to congratulate Maduro on his re-election and also condemn the recent assassination attempt against Maduro, in which drones armed with explosives flew toward him during a speech at a military parade. Egypt has not declared its official position in Venezuela’s presidential standoff. Yet, the Sisi government was one of the few countries to congratulate Maduro on his re-election in May.

Maduro’s government has also sought to develop its relations with Ilham Aliyev’s Azerbaijan. The Venezuelan government opened an embassy in Baku last year. Moreover, Maduro became the first head of a Latin American state to visit Azerbaijan. On that visit, the two leaders expressed their mutual desire to increase cooperation in the areas of tourism, culture, agriculture, finance, and energy.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to be a non-hemispheric partner of Venezuela. Despite heading the world’s largest democracy, and seeking greater ties with the West, Modi’s government is eager to develop bilateral political and economic relations with Maduro. Looking for a strong foothold in Latin America, India seeks to increase its cooperation with oil-rich Venezuela. India also refused to join the Western Hemisphere’s efforts to recognize Guaidó and called on the parties to find a political solution to resolve their differences through dialogue.

Some of these partners including India, Egypt, and Qatar have not shown their support yet to Maduro amid the recent standoff. While these countries are surely following the situation closely, their silence thus far suggests a tacit recognition of Maduro as president.

Commercial Ties

Second, and relatedly, commerce drives the inclination to align with isolated Venezuela. As the holder of the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela is still an attractive, if risky, trade partner, even as political and economic difficulties have engulfed it. With its vast resources of oil, gas and other natural resources such as gold, coal and bauxite, Venezuela offers strong economic incentives to its allies. China and Russia are primary examples of these allies benefiting from the access to Venezuela’s natural resources at a time when other leading oil exporters, such as Saudi Arabia, are cutting their oil exports.

Moreover, as many Western companies express reluctance to engage in business with Venezuela, a widening array of friendly countries appears eager to replace them. These countries see Venezuela as an opportunity to lessen dependence on traditional partners and diversify markets. Especially at a time when Western countries are leaving Venezuela because of fear of sanctions, these new allies seem to expect preferential access to Venezuela’s domestic market.

India has sought to benefit from these natural resources. Venezuela has become among the top ten crude oil suppliers to India, which has an enormous appetite for energy. India imported crude oil from Venezuela worth $5.8 billion (in U.S. dollars) in 2017-2018, and $4.6 billion worth of oil between April and October 2018 alone. Venezuela’s recent isolation in the region puts Modi’s government in a good bargaining position to gain leverage over a top oil exporter. Indian officials consider Venezuela an important market for Indian products and services in addition to energy sources. The Indian government is now considering setting up a rupee-payment mechanism for trade with Venezuela. The two countries are also working on a barter system to give Indian companies access to the Venezuelan market.

Similarly, the Egyptian government also seeks to develop energy relations with oil-rich Venezuela alongside the other possible areas of cooperation.

But the most striking example of non-hemispheric allies deepening economic ties with Venezuela is Turkey. Ankara imported $900 million in gold — about 23.6 tons — from Venezuela in the first nine months of 2018. Earlier this month, Venezuela sent an official delegation to Turkey to sign a contract enabling refining of thousands of tons of gold at Turkish refineries.

The growing trade volume between Turkey and Venezuela offers more evidence. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, while total trade volume between the two countries in the five-year period between 2013 and 2017 was $803.6 million, it reached $892.4 million in the first five months of 2018 alone. Turkey’s exports to Venezuela increased by 108 percent to $37.5 million in 2017 as compared to 2016, while imports rose by 78.6 percent to $116.5 million. These numbers grew even further in 2018, seeing exports at $58.2 million while imports at $834.2 million.

Source: Turkish Statistical Institute

Erdogan claimed during his December 2018 Caracas visit that his country is going to “cover the majority of the needs of Venezuela.” In this context, Turkey has been a key supplier of the Venezuela’s state-funded food program (CLAP), providing 69 percent of the program.

Moreover, Turkish Airlines, the country’s national flag carrier airline, has filled a void by starting new flights in and out of Caracas while other big international airlines suspend their flight operations to the country. Qatar, one of the early allies of Chavez, is still demonstrating interest in developing its economic ties with Venezuela. Maduro visited Doha in 2015 and 2016 to expand economic cooperation on energy issues. Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, held meetings with Qatar Petroleum about investment opportunities valued at $7 billion. The officials of the two countries are also considering opportunities to invest in Venezuela’s oil-backed “petro” cryptocurrency.

Belarus’s friendly ties with Venezuela are also rooted in a desire to diversify its markets. During a 2017 visit from Maduro’s vice president, Belarussian President Lukashenko announced that the two countries would develop a roadmap to deepen bilateral relations. In addition to funding the construction projects carried out under Venezuela’s government social program (Mision Vivienda), Belarus has been one of the food suppliers of Venezuela as it faces a severe food shortage.

Ideological Ties and Common Resentments

Finally, a clear alignment of interests and worldview has played an important role in rapprochements between Venezuela and its new allies. In particular, Maduro’s worldview has much in common with the more authoritarian tendencies of partners like Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia supported Maduro during their memberships on the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2017-18 when they rejected resolutions dealing with human rights violations in Venezuela. In addition to that, the two nations, which are frequently accused of human rights violations, sided with Maduro by signing declarations at the Human Rights Council supporting the position of the Venezuelan government, which demanded full respect for the sovereignty of Venezuela.

Similarly, a common sense of resentment against Western powers due to sanctions and other pressures may have also fostered closer collaboration between Venezuela and its newer allies. These often like-minded regimes flaunt their mutual support in the face of sanctions, viewed as “economic war.” Maduro has drawn closer to Erdogan based on their mutual dislike of the United States and frustration with U.S. sanctions. Turkish authorities explicitly highlighted that Turkey would side with Venezuela in the face of such measures. Speaking at the business forum in Caracas, Erdogan said, “We do not approve of these measures that ignore the rules of global trade…Commercial restrictions and sanctions are mistaken.” Notably, Venezuela’s central bank this year moved refining gold operations from Switzerland to Turkey following a wave of international sanctions.

India, which retains its political and economic ties with Iran and Syria despite warnings, follows a similar policy towards Venezuela. Modi’s government has implied that it will continue trading with Venezuela even in the face of U.S. sanctions. In 2017, Venezuelan officials announced that their country would be opening a bank account in India so that oil payments could be made in Indian rupees to bypass dollars.

Qatar has also shown little willingness to join Western isolation efforts towards the Maduro regime. In seeking to understand the ties between Qatar and Venezuela, it’s important to note their shared experience of being isolated. Qatar, isolated by a Saudi-led blockade last year, has pushed back and sought to develop its relations with Venezuela. Venezuelan officials traveled to Qatar last year to discuss to discuss using “Petro,” Venezuela’s national cryptocurrency, to dodge U.S. sanctions.

Meanwhile, for the Venezuelan side, deepening the ties with non-hemispheric countries seems much more critical. In the wake of the recent legitimacy crisis, Maduro needs more allies to be recognized as the rightful president. Beyond that, Venezuela’s financial sector and the Venezuelan economy are on the brink of collapse. In this respect, the relationship with these allies gives Maduro a much-needed lifeline that could help his regime remain in power.

Conclusion

As Venezuela loses some of its regional allies, it seems to have succeeded in creating an alternative alliance system that may be partially shielding it from international pressures. Highly personalized and less institutionalized diplomacy, the expectation of preferential access to Venezuelan natural resources, and a shared sense of resentment against Western powers have all helped convince a crop of new partners to deepen ties with Maduro.

In some instances, Venezuela’s new allies are less democratic or outright authoritarian regimes, and these countries tend to support one another against pressures and isolation efforts by democratic states. While these alliances of convenience lack firm ideological foundations, they help the isolated countries sustain their regimes in the face of Western pressures.

It should be noted that these new allies’ recent flirtations with Maduro are rooted in interests that are more pragmatic and less geopolitical compared to those of Russia and China, which have long sought to assert geopolitical influence in America’s backyard. But although these newer allies are not as significant to Venezuela as China and Russia are, their interest in building ties with Venezuela extends a lifeline to the Maduro regime. These countries’ support — at a time when the country faces a serious challenge in the Western Hemisphere — offers some relief to an embattled Maduro, helping him maintain his grip on power.

After Guaidó declared himself interim president, Washington called on the world to pick a side and urged all countries to end financial transactions with Maduro’s government. Venezuela reacted by deeming the move a U.S.-backed coup attempt and announced that it would cut off diplomatic ties with the United States.

The standoff over Venezuela resembles Cold-War style conflict. The international community is sharply divided between countries that favor Maduro’s leaving power and those that prefer he remain. As long as the domestic conflict remains unresolved, a diplomatic standoff between U.S. allies and Maduro’s external supporters will persist. Moreover, this crisis risks opening up Venezuela to all sorts of meddling by international actors.

Under these circumstances, Maduro will need more allies that recognize him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Given that he will retain access to the country’s resources for the foreseeable future, the Venezuelan dictator may still be able to count on support from these partners in addition to longstanding allies China and Russia.

 

Imdat Oner is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at Florida International University (FIU). Before joining the Ph.D. program at FIU, he served as a career diplomat in the Foreign Service of Turkey. He worked at the Turkish Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, as Political Officer.

Lana Shehadeh is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at FIU. Prior to joining the Ph.D. program at FIU, she worked as a Senior Researcher for the BBC Media Action.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Hugoshi