World News

Tired of Regional Critics, Venezuela Looks to Russia and China

Posted December 27, 2017 7:53 p.m. EST

RIO DE JANEIRO — Venezuela, which a decade ago aspired to be the axis of a new, left-leaning diplomatic and trade alliance in the Americas, is finding itself increasingly isolated in the hemisphere.

Venezuela downgraded diplomatic relations with Canada and Brazil in recent days, after a war of words over the Venezuelan government’s decision last week to ban three influential opposition parties from running candidates in next year’s presidential election.

As its leftist president, Nicolás Maduro, is increasingly regarded as a despot among neighbors in a region that has shifted politically to the right, Venezuela, once the richest country in South America but now in need of cash, is drawing closer — and becoming more dependent on — Russia and China.

With its oil, Venezuela is likely to be an attractive, if risky, long-term gamble for Moscow and Beijing, which have sought in recent years to assert greater influence in a region that Washington has long regarded as its backyard.

“Marginalizing the Venezuelan kleptocracy is important, but total isolation will cede the ability of regional leaders to shape political events on the ground to actors outside the region,” said Juan Gonzalez, a former White House and State Department official in the Obama administration who worked on Latin America policy. “Russia’s increased role is particularly concerning, given their proven interference in the 2016 U.S. election and apparent design to disrupt regional politics.”

The disputes with Canada and Brazil occurred as Venezuela also took aim at Todd D. Robinson, Washington’s new top diplomat in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital. Robinson, a career Foreign Service officer, most recently U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, said in an introductory video posted online that he would “look for opportunities to help bring back democracy and prosperity” to Venezuela.

Last Thursday, Delcy Rodríguez, the president of Venezuela’s national Constituent Assembly, chided Robinson, saying he had “arrived to our country on the wrong foot!”

Then, over the weekend, Rodríguez, Venezuela’s former foreign minister, announced that the top diplomats from Canada and Brazil had been designated persona non grata. In diplomatic parlance, that gesture typically signals that an envoy is being expelled in protest over something. The announcement followed the two countries’ criticism last week of the Maduro government’s decision to prevent opposition parties from competing in next year’s election.

Rodríguez said the Canadian chargé d’affaires, Craig Kowalik, was being punished for his “permanent, insistent and rude meddling in the internal affairs of Venezuela.” As for the blacklisting of Ambassador Rui Pereira of Brazil, Rodríguez cited last year’s impeachment of Brazil’s leftist president, Dilma Rousseff, who was replaced by a leader who took a tougher line on Venezuela.

Canada on Monday took reciprocal action, declaring that Venezuela’s top diplomat in Ottawa would be expelled.

“Canada will not stand by as the Government of Venezuela robs its people of their fundamental democratic and human rights, and denies them access to basic humanitarian assistance,” Canada’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Brazil on Tuesday said it intended to expel Gerardo Delgado, Venezuela’s top envoy in Brasília. Over the weekend, Brazil’s Foreign Ministry had said that the reported expulsion of Pereira underscored the “autocratic nature” of Venezuela’s government.

The diplomatic disputes unfolded against a backdrop of economic misery in Venezuela. According to statistics published recently by the National Assembly, inflation in November was nearly 57 percent — above the 50 percent mark that is commonly regarded as the threshold of hyperinflation. Profound shortages of food and medicine, the scarcity of cash and a general breakdown of public services continue to worsen by the day, driving a surge of emigration.

The thinning of the diplomatic corps in Caracas will make it harder for Venezuela’s neighbors to try to broker talks between the government and the opposition and to persuade Maduro to allow the entry of humanitarian aid to parts of the country where people are starving.

“It curtails our capacity to have access to the government and the opposition,” a senior Brazilian diplomat said Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the consequences of the dispute. “We’ll keep a chargé d’affaires in Caracas, but an experienced ambassador has much more access and can provide us with more accurate information and analysis.”

The diplomatic tit-for-tat comes as Venezuela is being excluded from significant regional discussions. Earlier this year, Caracas was suspended from the trading bloc Mercosur, which includes Brazil and Argentina, for failing to uphold the democratic clause in the alliance’s charter.

As the region has turned on him this year — and with his country on the verge of defaulting on its loans — Maduro has made increasingly enthusiastic overtures to Russia and China.

During a visit to Russia in October, the Venezuelan leader thanked President Vladimir Putin for “all the support, political and diplomatic, in difficult times which we are living through.”

The next month, Russia gave Venezuela a much-needed reprieve by restructuring a debt of $3.1 billion.

Earlier this month, Maduro met with Igor I. Sechin, the chief executive officer of Russia’s state-run oil giant, Rosneft, to negotiate new ventures, which included giving the Russian company the right to develop two offshore gas fields.

Mari Carmen Aponte, who served as the Obama administration’s top diplomat for Latin America, said Maduro was negotiating from a position of weakness. China, she said, has a high tolerance for risk and takes a long view on investments in countries rich in natural resources. Russia, on the other hand, probably sees Maduro’s vulnerability as a golden opportunity to gain leverage over another top oil exporter.

“Maduro is essentially alone and doesn’t have the wherewithal to survive without allies,” Aponte said. “These allies know that and they are manipulating him very effectively.”