Venezuela is briskly heading towards the kind of abyss we have come to recognise as the default in many political power games.
As Venezuela’s crisis unfolds, the superpowers have been adopting the same practices they have deployed in other victim countries: flagrant meddling in a country’s internal affairs not for the good of the country per se, but for hegemony over it and its resources.
It is now Venezuela’s turn to become a pawn in the hands of the superpowers as over and above the economic meltdown foreign interference will ultimately consume the country.
Venezuela was once the richest country in Latin America, as oil dominates its exports and is its main source of revenue. It has the largest oil reserves in the world, beating Saudi Arabia, the US, and others.
Despite the oil reserves, however, or perhaps because of them, Venezuela has suffered one of the worst economic crises in modern history. The mismanagement of oil wealth, US economic sanctions, and the historically low oil prices after 2014 have caused Venezuela’s currency to plummet at a startling pace. The country has hit rock bottom.
Today, Venezuela is in dire state. Hyperinflation of figures that are hardly comprehensible weigh down gravely on the country. It takes only 19 days for prices to double. Massive food and water shortages have created a humanitarian crisis. Rising crime, prostitution, and an exodus of millions of citizens to Colombia and other Latin American countries have become pervasive. In footage on social media, it is possible to see vendors selling trinkets and souvenir bags made from Venezuelan paper currency, now deemed worthless.
Politically and economically, Venezuela is in shambles. No one can deny that. Its current president, Nicolas Maduro, has been totally unsuccessful in overcoming the economic crisis, and yet he hangs on to power tooth and nail. Juan Guaido, the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, has proclaimed himself interim president, creating a political and constitutional crisis.
US President Donald Trump announced his support for Guaido via Twitter, in brazen violation of international law. “Today, I have officially recognised the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the interim president of Venezuela,” Trump said. UK politician Ken Livingstone, a former mayor of London, considers this “no different if Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, announced that she was replacing Donald Trump as president.”
Things are not as simple as Trump wants us to think. In fact, his words pit the different sides against each other. The country is polarised with anti-government protests and counter-protests daily, as backers and opponents from within Venezuela and beyond pick sides. Who is with whom?
The Venezuelan military is behind Maduro. Russia, China, Turkey, and North Korea back Maduro and have vowed to support him. Moscow has lashed out at the US for supporting Guaido, saying that Washington risks plummeting Venezuela into “uncontrolled violence.” As for China, it has said it “will continue to support the government’s efforts to safeguard Venezuela’s national sovereignty and stability.”
The US and its allies Canada, Brazil, and others support Guaido. According to Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, Venezuela represents “a threat to peace and security in the region.” Germany, France, and Spain have warned Venezuela that they will recognise Guaido as the legitimate president if elections do not take place immediately. Maduro has rejected their ultimatum.
Guaido has not ruled out a US military intervention, though he hopes it will not come to that, and already Russia is said to have sent mercenaries to protect Maduro. But here is the reality check: all those who seek to come across as defenders of Venezuela have ulterior motives.
To leverage their military-industrial presence in Latin America, both Russia and China have invested heavily in Venezuela and Maduro. Today, Venezuela owes over $100 billion to both countries.
By lending to Venezuela extensively, Russia received stakes in energy and oil projects. In addition, it will be mining for gold in Venezuela under an agreement made recently. China and Venezuela also have dozens of cooperative agreements. China controls 49 per cent of a joint oil venture after Venezuela sold it an extra 9.9 per cent. China will then be receiving one million barrels of oil from Venezuela, triple what it used to import earlier.
In other circumstances, the US might have considered Guaido’s action to be a coup against a legitimate leader, as it has done elsewhere. However, it has chosen to back Guaido to undermine the presence of both China and Russia in the region and in particular in the world’s energy markets.
The US might seem to be empathising with the Venezuelans, but it refuses to take in any refugees, and its sanctions starve Venezuelans and cripple their country further. “US claims of defending democracy worldwide are nothing but an attempt to control and make profit from natural resources, and, as Venezuela has the largest oil reserves, Trump wants those to be taken over by American companies,” Livingstone commented.
The US and Russia have been playing cat and mouse since the end of the Cold War. Tensions surface between them sporadically, and almost always these tensions occur on foreign soil. The US and Russian delegations at the UN Security Council meeting on Venezuela slammed one another recently. The Russian envoy warned that if anything represents a threat to peace and security in the world today, “it is the shameless and aggressive actions of the United States and its allies to oust the legitimately elected president of Venezuela.”
Pompeo chastised China and Russia for “propping up a failed regime in the hopes of recovering billions of dollars in ill-considered investments and assistance made over the years”.
Had it been Venezuela’s starving poor that the superpowers were concerned with, I would have kept my doubts to myself. But these superpowers stoke the fires from afar, first to gain the upper hand over their adversaries, and second to usurp Venezuela’s natural resources.
Hands off Venezuela, everyone. Let Venezuela be.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly