The Limits to Russia and China's Support of Venezuela
By Benjamin Gedan & Michael McCarthy
January 15, 2018
Fear about Chinese and Russian influence in Venezuela is reaching new heights.
The Trump administration’s new national security strategy condemns China and Russia for supporting “the dictatorship in Venezuela,” and for using arms sales to exercise regional influence. Preventing China and Russia from challenging the United States’ regional dominance is high on the White House’s Latin America agenda.
These concerns are understandable, but we should avoid hysteria about Chinese and Russian meddling.
Caracas’ relationships with Moscow and Beijing are often exaggerated, including by the governments themselves. In October, for example, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow and made farfetched claims about Russia’s limitless military backing. “I am sure, even if we do not ask, we will be given even more support,” he said in the wake of President Trump’s threats of a “military option” for dealing with Venezuela.
Such statements have created a false impression of tight-knit international alliances bolstering the regime in Caracas. In truth, Maduro is increasingly isolated and as his country’s economic problems metastasize, his support from Beijing and Moscow falls.
The Trump administration has stepped up painful financial-sector sanctions against Maduro as the latter consolidates power ahead of a suspect presidential election this year. Beijing and Moscow have grudgingly offered minor economic support but repeatedly shunned the bailout Maduro desperately needs.
China’s support has declined to a yearly allowance that props up Maduro, but does not solve deep structural problems. Russia recently negotiated generous repayment terms on a $3 billion loan but issued no new financing.
Given the low probability of a Chinese or Russian bailout, regime stability in Venezuela is far shakier than it appears. Maduro is struggling to control a population that is increasingly restive about food and goods shortages. Absent an external rescue, a political transition in Venezuela remains a possibility, despite the opposition’s disarray.
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