Venezuelans caught in cruel geopolitics | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 04, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 10:06 AM, February 04, 2019

Venezuelans caught in cruel geopolitics

Pundits are busy arguing over which next step suits which geopolitical rival the best in Venezuela, which player has scored the most so far, and who is likely to prevail in this mindless game of geopolitics till the end. Stuck between this analytical calculus are millions of innocent Venezuelans, with their supplies for minimal sustenance running short, amid an ever-dwindling hope for a better life.

Venezuela is a case study for what happens when the internal politics of a nation is usurped by an opposition-less ruling elite, leaving behind geopolitics as the only real politics capable of bringing any meaningful change. Political change in a system like this gets handicapped by the realpolitik practiced by the external powers, where the plight of the population inside matters very little.

Venezuela—which, only twenty years ago, was one of the richest nations of South America, with a vibrant democracy and more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia—is now a failed state both politically and economically, with an autocrat at the top.

Venezuelan economy, under late Hugo Chavez's populist reign, starting from his election victory in 1998, boomed all the way till the mid-2000s, when Chavez was popular enough to win his re-election through fair means. As late as 2006, Venezuela's GDP grew at 10 percent, it imported billion dollars of consumer goods, banks were flush with deposits, and its stock market was one of the best in the world.

Amid such prosperity, Hugo Chavez, the populist, under the tutelage of Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, started to brandish a confident, new mantra of "state-sponsored capitalism". The economic boom, which seemed spectacular from the outside, made both Chavez and his guru Castro's lifelong political thesis rhyme and jive irresistibly with the happy Venezuelans, leaving only the cynic attentive enough to realise that the populist bonanza would fall with the price of oil, which till today remains the only major exportable item out of Venezuela. 

After Chavez's death, his populist policies continued under his hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro. However, by the time Maduro reached to the top, the eventual crash in oil prices occurred, making populist statecraft difficult in Venezuela. Having failed to diversify their economy away from oil, successive governments of Chavez and Maduro resorted to unlimited printing of currency as their only way out, resulting in hyperinflation, which by 2018 reached million percentage annually, i.e., cost of goods doubling every week.  

Amid such economic malaise, the risk of popular uprisings and military coups increased for both Chavez and Maduro, which in turn made their successive regimes look outward for survival. Venezuela increasingly relied on its much poorer but ideologically aligned neighbour, Cuba, for geopolitical and securities cooperation, especially on matters related to political suppression. In no time, with Cuban hands came China, Russia, and Iran into the mix in Venezuelan affairs.

Noticing the interplay of a triage featuring China-Russia and Cuba in its backyard, the United States, with its ever-watchful eyes near its shores, resorted to economic sanctions and political subversions targeting the increasingly unpopular and authoritarian regimes of Chavez and Maduro. The American-led economic isolation handicapped Venezuela's economic muscles. With continued self-inflicted wounds and misguided geopolitical adventurism, Chavez and Maduro kept digging bigger economic, social, and political holes, which in the end resulted in the largest refugee crisis in the western hemisphere, with the number of Venezuelan refugees expected to surpass 5 million by the end of 2019, according to UN estimates. This figure needs to be compared against war-ravaged Syria's 6 million refugees.

Venezuela now has two heads-of-states—one re-elected through a rigged election in mid-2018, and the other through self-declaration. Major western powers and all of Venezuela's neighbours have rallied behind Juan Guaido, the US-backed 35-year-old National Assembly leader who declared himself president. Cuba, Russia, and China, on the other hand, are standing firmly behind President Nicolas Maduro, who still has the backing of the country's military. Maduro has so far also defied western calls for re-election or resignation.

With an accelerated economic free-fall amid an intensified western-led diplomatic assault, the Maduro regime's grip on power is tenuous at best. It will be the external forces and their level of commitment, or the lack thereof, that will ultimately decide when President Maduro is forced to depart, or whether he departs at all.

Among Maduro's allies, the country that needs him to survive the most is Cuba. In return for Cuba's elaborate military and intelligence-related assistance, Venezuela provides Cuba about USD 1.2 billion dollars of crucial oil subsidies as the island nation fights its own international economic isolation and stagnation.

According to some estimates, Cuba now receives about a third of its total oil consumption at a deeply subsidised cost from Venezuela. That is largess that Venezuela can only ill-afford, but Cuba dearly needs.

China and Russia hold the remaining lifeline for the Maduro regime. When America-led sanctions prohibited international institutions from lending to Venezuela, these two countries provided large sums of debt, mostly due to geopolitical considerations. Most of these Chinese and Russian debts went to Venezuela's oil industry which eventually soured with declining oil prices.

Although statistics on China-Venezuela debt situation remains opaque, according to the South China Morning Post, China had lent Venezuela a staggering sum of USD 62 billion over the last decade, a majority of the money going into failed projects. Russia's debt outstanding is less than China's, but no less significant at around USD 3 billion. Having failed to re-pay these two major creditors in cash, Venezuela has been paying them in kind, by servicing these debts in guaranteed oil flows to China and Russia.

Both geopolitical ambitions and major debt recovery will keep China, Russia, and Cuba interested in Venezuela for long. However, Cuba, Russia or China are neither willing and nor able to decisively bring victory to Maduro or prosperity back to Venezuela going against the will of the United States. Venezuela is simply too close to the American shores, surrounded by too many American allies. Any meaningful Chinese or Russian security guarantee will require their naval presence near Venezuelan waters, which in turn will be easily fire-walled by America via the Panama Canal. 

Venezuela, on the other hand, is only marginally significant for America—even with all its oil reserves. That is because the world has already entered a post-oil era, where the United States is the largest producer of hydro-carbon and a net-exporter of petroleum, owing to America's shale-oil boom.

Venezuela, for America, is more of a humanitarian catastrophe, contributing to an influx of refugees in America's southern borders, creating a toxic political backlash inside America. This makes Venezuela a geopolitical irritant, not an impending geopolitical hazard requiring America to go for a quick and decisive blow. 

Therefore, Venezuela, absent any major American miscalculation, is less likely to be a replay of Syria or Iraq or Libya; it may not even be a reincarnation of the many American military interventions in the Latin America of the 1960s.  

The triage of Cuba, China and Russia, with all their incentives, will try to stay involved in Venezuelan affairs just enough to preserve a stalemate and try to score as many propaganda points, if not ultimately to save President Maduro's tenuous reign, but at least to ensure a seat at the table when Maduro is eventually overthrown.

America and the West, for their part, are likely to hold their decisive blows, go for more pinching economic sanctions instead, till Maduro can no longer stay afloat.

Venezuela, from the perspective of big power rivalry, is expected to remain an exciting game of chess, whereas for the innocent Venezuelans, the country will remain a protracted unbearable tragedy for a long time, with or without Maduro.

Shafquat Rabbee is a geopolitical columnist. You can follow him on Twitter @srabbee.

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