Reflections on the Venezuelan Crisis
By Brazilian Army Colonel (R) Fernando Montenegro* July 12, 2019
The European Union and the Lima Group currently oversee negotiations in Venezuela between dictator Nicolás Maduro and Interim President Juan Guaidó. The Venezuelan economic catastrophe worsens due to debt with China and Russia.
The Russian position can be clearly identified as that of a disruptive actor, with no regard for Venezuelans’ miserable conditions, in an area that has historically been favorable to the United States.
While the United States, the European Union, and the 14 nations that are part of the Lima Group recognize Guaidó’s legitimacy and the severity of the humanitarian crisis that has led Brazil and Colombia to accept millions of refugees, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov reaffirms support for an illegitimate regime in Caracas, which systematically conducts corrupt activities, drug trafficking, and transnational organized crimes, in operations involving Maduro’s relatives, his generals, and front men.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently tried to find common ground with Lavrov to no avail at the Artic Council on May 6, even after Russia expressed concern about the April 30 event. At that time, Guaidó led a group of Venezuelans in an attempt to establish constitutional order and restore democracy and human rights, in what became known as Operation Liberty. However, Guaidó’s wishes, along with millions of Venezuelans, could only be made possible with a mutiny, because Hugo Chávez had disarmed the population just over a decade ago. One of the positive outcomes of the protest was the release of Leopoldo López, the leader of Guaidó’s political party (Voluntad Popular), who was under house arrest.
Despite the wish of millions of Venezuelans for a stronger participation from Brazil in helping with the Venezuelan crisis, including sending troops to the neighboring country, the Brazilian foreign policy has a long-standing non-interventionist tradition — a position President Jair Bolsonaro recently ratified. As a new development, as if in response to Moscow, the day after Russia confirmed its support for the dictator Maduro, during the Arctic Council, Venezuela returned to the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, approved by the General Assembly. This treaty enables the request for assistance from foreign troops of signatory countries such as Peru, Colombia, and even the United States, to solve internal conflicts. Since Guaidó is the recognized president, this is a tangible possibility.
Currently, Maduro is nothing but a declining ruler, artificially maintaining power, akin to a terminal patient in an intensive care unit. Various methods are used to keep the puppet in power, and those are literally paid for in gold. Recently, a large-capacity Russian aircraft landed in Caracas and transported 20 tons of precious metal, equivalent to about 20 percent of Venezuelan’s reserves, to an undisclosed location.
Maduro’s growing loss of trust for his armed forces and state structures is increasingly evident upon verification that the dictator’s security and that of the country’s critical infrastructures are managed by Private Military Contractors (PMCs), such as Wagner Group and Cossacks, led by former Russian service members who are very close to the Kremlin, consisting of some form of indirect military operation from Vladimir Putin. In addition it is widely known that Cuban agents carry out private security.
Furthermore, a Russian task force arrived in the country to maintain and fix all Russian military equipment, such as aircraft, armored vehicles, and anti-aircraft defense systems. Because Venezuelan service members were not trained to work with such sophisticated equipment, PMCs also brought pilots to operate the Russian manufactured Sukhoi aircraft, and other Russian defense systems. The Kremlin’s concern is well founded, since the poor performance of some Russian military equipment in a possible mission could cause great damage to the country’s lucrative and traditional military equipment industry.
As far as we know, Venezuela has anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 generals who, along with their family members, occupy key roles in the government and state-owned companies. However, this is a forged “loyalty,” since it was bought during the Chávez era and is currently maintained through blackmail. Nonetheless, we must emphasize that the Cuban intelligence service controls the details of these high-ranking officers’ lives to ensure their loyalty to the government.
The question remains as to how the game will unfold following a possible change of position from the Havana government.
* Colonel Montenegro is the Brazilian Army’s Special Forces operator and researcher for the Autonomous University of Lisbon, International Relations Observatory.