This past week, the world watched as the United States and various Latin American countries recognized Juan Guaido as the legitimate President of Venezuela. Over the past five years, one of the worst humanitarian crises of the twenty-first century unfolded in Venezuela and every country in the Western Hemisphere has been impacted by this crisis.
Latin America continues to be one of the most neglected areas of U.S. foreign policy. The region is understood in terms of U.S. counternarcotics policy and violence. Still, the humanitarian crisis and dictatorship in Venezuela can teach U.S. policymakers a vast amount about shortcomings in U.S. policy towards the region that cannot be repeated.
The crisis in Venezuela began in 2014 when the international price of oil drastically dropped. Venezuela’s economy is heavily dependent on oil exports, which account for 95 percent of the country’s economic activity. Under the rule of Socialist leader Hugo Chavez, many social programs were created for the country’s poorer populations that were directly funded by petro dollars. The drastic drop in oil prices — combined with serious economic mismanagement and corruption — caused for social programs to go bankrupt leaving millions of Venezuelans without food or medicine.
The fall of Venezuela’s economy caused millions to flee and thousands to protest against the Maduro regime. Many protesters were jailed, tortured, and killed by Maduro’s forces. Nicolas Maduro proceeded to deny his people humanitarian aid and rendered the opposition powerless. He arrested his top political opponents, like opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, and rewrote the constitution with the support of his allies in a process known as the Constituent Assembly. Nicolas Maduro poses a large security threat to the region due to his alliance with a known terror organization, the National Liberation Army of Colombia, and his administration’s connections to drug trafficking organizations.
The situation in Venezuela does not solely impact foreign affairs in Latin America but involves relations with some of the United States’ gravest foes: China and Russia. Since the Obama administration, the United States failed to counter the expanding role of China and Russia in the region. While many policymakers act like this is a new phenomenon, it emerged out of policy failures on behalf of the United States and its minimization of Latin America to solely a narco-region. China and Russia’s expansion into places like Venezuela is part of larger geopolitical strategy to sneak in as the United States looked away.
One of the biggest worries of policymakers is China’s vast economic diplomacy in places like Venezuela. China has focused its attention on funding economic projects in Latin America to meet its own energy needs and fund infrastructure projects. Chinese funding is attractive because there are less restrictions compared to projects funded by the World Bank or Inter-American Development Bank. Also, China has exercised predatory loan practices that have caused for countries to amass an unsustainable amount of debt. The large amount of capital investment has utterly pushed the United States to a secondary or tertiary role for investing in Latin America. Still, China’s role in Latin America has been heavily focused on investment with the hope of gaining the goodwill and economic dependence of the United State’s allies and enemies.
Russia has been overlooked in the region due to its limited economic power. Still, Russia’s strategy in Venezuela has been more calculated than China’s by combining diplomacy, economic strategy, and hybrid warfare techniques.
Russia has slowly built strong diplomatic relations with Venezuela since U.S. President George W. Bush was in office. Hugo Chavez bought billions dollars worth of arms from Russia in order to gain Russia’s assistance in international oil negotiations. Additionally, Russia expanded its role in Venezuela as a counter to U.S. aggression in nations that were part of the Soviet Union. After the U.S. support of Georgia and later Ukraine, Russia demonstrated its ability to project military power in the region by flying bombers to Venezuela. Despite Russia’s relative economic weakness compared to China, Russian President Vladimir Putin has become a master at tit-for-tat diplomacy. His continued diplomacy is part of a larger effort to capitalize on Maduro’s trust and desperation.
Diplomacy takes time and constant attention. Russia has sent high profile diplomats to Venezuela and throughout Latin America to strengthen diplomatic relations under the guise of “anti-imperialism.” Since 2000, Russia has made 42 high level visits to Latin America. For example, in 2010 and 2013, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov made three trips to Latin America. In 2014, President Putin traveled to meet with leaders from Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, and Nicaragua. In 2016, Putin attended the APEC summit in Lima, Peru. This constant effort is in stark contrast to Trump’s cancellation of his trip to the Summit of the Americas and his cancellation of his trip to Colombia, one of the United States’ strongest allies, after the G20 Summit.
Additionally, Russia’s diplomatic capital in Venezuela gave Putin leverage to become the economic lifeline to Venezuela as China retreated on its investment. Russia’s national oil company, Rosneft, has given $16 billion in financing to Venezuela in exchange for oil and favorable exploration contracts. Rosneft CEO, Igor Sechin, has been able to capitalize on Venezuela’s economic vulnerability. This process has allowed Russia to gain access to Venezuela’s most prized oil fields in the Orinoco Belt. Also, Russia has refinanced more than $3 billion in Venezuela’s sovereign debt. Russia used Maduro’s desperation to gain access to the world’s largest crude oil reserve that is primarily dominated by Western companies. Still, Russia may end up with a bad investment due to Venezuela’s failing oil infrastructure and the recent U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s national oil company, PDVSA.
Finally, Venezuela is part of Russia’s larger hybrid warfare strategy to undermine the West without using military means. Venezuela is one of the largest anti-U.S. regimes in Latin America with its allies including Bolivia, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Also, the Kremlin’s foreign-facing propaganda syndicates RT and Sputnik have expanded their networks to Spanish speaking audiences where they espouse anti-democratic rhetoric and exploit Latin American fears about U.S. intervention. In 2017, Russian twitter bots used to spread disinformation in the Catalan referendum were traced to Venezuela. Russia’s tightening grip around the Maduro regime has allowed Putin to set up a potential satellite state in the Western Hemisphere to directly challenge the United State’s influence in the region.
With this in mind and Maduro’s refusal to leave power, the United States has limited options. One option that the United States should not engage in, by any means, is military intervention. This would ruin its image in the hemisphere and reinforce the fears of the United States reinstating the Monroe Doctrine thus playing into Maduro and Putin’s narrative.
Instead, the United States must continue to rally the international community to call for Maduro’s resignation, while assisting countries in the region to help refugees. Additionally, the United States can create a back channel to Maduro to offer him amnesty for leaving peacefully and holding elections within 30 days. Surely, Cuba wouldn’t mind taking him. Additionally, the United States should strengthen sanctions against the Venezuelan oil industry. While the sanctions against PDVSA are a start, the United States must ensure that Maduro and his cronies cannot evade sanctions with the help of China, Iran, and Russia. Finally, the United States should think about long-term strategy on how to re-engage the region and create vital partnerships. As Russia demonstrated, if the United States wants Latin American countries to trust that it is not an imperialist force, then top officials must show up and engage in the pomp and circumstance of diplomacy.
The United States is a global power that has interests in many regions. However, its relations with Latin America never should have retreated to where they are now. Instead of just throwing development dollars or military equipment at a problem, the United States must strategically rethink how it engages the region and show that it is here to stay. The influence of China and Russia cannot be reversed but the United States can increase investment in the region for innovative projects that address some of the most pressing issues like migration, environmental security, and corruption. Without a strategic rethink in U.S. policy towards Latin America, U.S. foes will move closer to our borders and increase the security threats the United States faces in the twenty-first century.
* * *
Adriianna Lagorio is an M.A. candidate in Security Policy Studies specializing in Counterterrorism and Latin American Security at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She previously studied at the University of San Diego, where she studied International Affairs and Spanish.