The number of Russian service members in Venezuela is on the rise. Américo De Grazia, a lawmaker in the Venezuelan National Assembly who is in exile in the United States, said in January 2020 that “there is a reserved area at Canaima National Park where Russian and Iranian Hezbollah soldiers are extracting thorium.”
Thorium is a radioactive element used to manufacture ceramics and metal for the aerospace and nuclear industries, among others, and as fuel for nuclear energy and missiles. Venezuela has more than 300,000 tons of thorium, says the International Atomic Energy Agency, headquartered in Vienna, Austria.
Venezuelan journalist Mariana Reyes said that in December 2019, a contingent of about 40 Russian officers wearing Venezuelan Army uniforms arrived in Canaima, together with soldiers of the National Bolivarian Armed Force. The entourage had microwave equipment, satellite antennas, and signal inhibitors, she added.
“The authorities told the people that the Russian delegation had arrived to conduct an airspace study, since Venezuela doesn’t have the technology to face the threat of U.S. drones,” Reyes said. “Members of the Russian contingent walk around carrying high-caliber firearms.”
The wealth contained in the Orinoco Mining Arc, an area that covers five national parks, including Canaima, has been legally exploited since 2016, when the regime gave mining concessions to Russian and Chinese companies in a 669,600 square-mile area, now deforested and eroded.
“There are mafias, illegal mining workers, narcotraffickers, and indigenous people who have joined the efforts, together with service members and former FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] members,” reported online news site Mongabay Latam, which focuses on environmental studies and conservation in Latin America. “The Army takes part in the supervision of many mining sites, and conducts tasks related to gold smuggling from Venezuela to other countries,” the article says.
De Grazia added that Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López approves illicit operations through the state-run Military Corporation for Mining, Petroleum and Gas, to exploit mines (gold, silver, diamonds, and rare-earth elements) in an effort to get support for Maduro.
“Venezuela is in Russia’s hands. Moscow is setting the pace to recoup a multimillion-dollar debt that the South American country has to pay,” Daniel Pou, a professor at the Latin American Social Sciences Institute in the Dominican Republic, told Diálogo. “For the Russians, it’s important to receive payment in kind, because elements like thorium are indispensable for their technological development.”
“The Venezuelan regime opened the way for the Russians to exploit thorium, hoping to turn it into a new source of revenue for the State,” Jorge Serrano, a scholar at the Center for Higher Studies in Peru, told Diálogo. “This agreement is not to defend Maduro, but to remain connected to a country that Russia considers essential for economic, political, and security leverage in Latin America.”
In March 2019, a contingent of 100 Russian service members arrived in Venezuela in a Russian Air Force aircraft. Russian Ambassador to Venezuela Vladimir Zaiomski said the troops are helping the Bolivarian Army maintain its equipment.
“After the power outages recorded in March 2019, Russian assistance increased to ensure that their military technology yields the expected results, especially the surface-to-air missiles,” said Pou. “Also, to take control of Venezuelan oil and minerals while they collect their debt,” Serrano added.