Venezuela’s Defense Minister Arrives in Moscow: The Chavista regime in Venezuela is now facing the most formidable challenge to its survival since the initially successful but ultimately failed coup d’état against former strongman Hugo Chávez in 2002. As millions of citizens take to the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities to demand the end of socialist Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship, as they have been doing since last week, the international press has almost unanimously called for a return to liberal democracy and an end to the government’s despicable repression against peaceful protesters.
Even the formerly pro-Chávez New York Times, which publicly thanked the Comandante for his policies in a 2007 editorial, has changed its tune. The NYT is now denouncing the Chavista “government’s epic economic mismanagement and cronyism” while encouraging pressure for “Venezuela’s leader to back down”. And Maduro is facing pressure not only to end his deadly, Cuban-inspired tactics of repression, but also to relinquish his hold on power altogether.
As Venezuelan journalist Pedro García Otero wrote in these pages on April 22:
Reliable sources told the PanAm Post that Maduro’s decision to assign lawyer Hermann Escarrá and José Vicente Rangel, Chávez’s vice-president from 2002 to 2007, with the task of unblocking the political game and establishing a timetable for general elections… involves his ordered exit from power. The only condition would be a guarantee of some type of transitional justice for Maduro, his wife Cilia Flores, and possibly some members of his inner circle, all of whom would face serious criminal charges under ordinary circumstances…
But while some evidence does hint at the possibility of Maduro stepping down and being replaced by a transitional government— in return, of course, for immunity for his crimes— other signs point to Maduro’s utter contempt for public opinion, at home as well as abroad, and to his unabashed desire to hold on to the presidency regardless of the cost, which at this point is measured in terms of the corpses of innocent Venezuelans who needlessly perish beneath the Chavista regime’s lethal yoke.
The latest piece of evidence in this regard is the arrival in Moscow of Vladimir Padrino, Maduro’s Defense Minister, who announced in a video that he would meet his Russian counterpart, Sergey Kuzhugetovich Shoygu, at a conference of international defense.
“I have come (to Moscow) upon the orders of President Nicolás Maduro,” Padrino said in the video. He added: “I bring a very interesting, a very important point (to the conference), which is NATO’s projection in Latin America, its consequences and risks.”
Beyond the excuse of the conference, why is Maduro’s Defense Minister, the man who “pulls the strings of power behind the scenes” in Venezuela according to García Otero, visiting Moscow precisely when massive citizen protests are posing an existential threat to the Chavista regime? The answer may have to do with what is perhaps the least analyzed aspect of the Venezuelan crisis: the geostrategic implications of a failed state in Venezuela from the point of view of the world’s great powers.
There certainly has been a shift in Washington’s attitude toward the Venezuelan regime since Donald Trump arrived at the White House. As the PanAm Post explained in 2016, the Obama administration carried out a three-pronged strategy in Latin America, its aims being:
- Achieving the dangerous pact between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the communist FARC guerrillas.
- Renewing diplomatic and commercial relations with the Castros’ Cuba after more than five decades since the Cuban embargo was put in place.
- Appeasing the Maduro regime in Venezuela in order to guarantee the success of the Santos-FARC pact while preventing the implosion of the Cuban economy, which depends on Venezuelan oil for its survival (Obama wanted to avoid a Mariel Boatlift-type humanitarian crisis on the coasts of Florida).
President Trump, however, has thrown this Obama-ite strategy out of his blacked-out Mar-a-Lago window. As President Elect, Trump encouraged the opposition to the Cuban dictatorship by denouncing Fidel Castro as a “brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.” Castro’s legacy, Trump stated, “is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.” In a single paragraph, Trump utterly discarded all of Obama’s wishy-washiness toward the Cuban regime, which even included an official visit to the island.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017
In January, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Secretary of State, announced that the US would revise its support for the Santos-FARC pact in Colombia. In other words, Santos could no longer count with the blank check he had enjoyed under Obama, who had pledged USD $450 million for the agreement’s “implementation.” In April, the Colombian mainstream media was scandalized when it learned that Trump had met Colombian ex-presidents Andrés Pastrana and Álvaro Uribe, the most visible opponents of the Santos-FARC deal, in his Florida resort more than a month before he was scheduled to receive Santos at the White House.
While Colombian journalists mocked the two former presidents since unnamed sources cited only a brief encounter between Pastrana and Trump, only few noted that nobody runs into the president of the United States, the most carefully guarded man in the world, by accident, and that the Trump-Pastrana-Uribe meeting was arranged by Senator Marco Rubio. The Cuban-American senator helped deliver Florida for Trump in the election and he speaks to the president’s ear about Latin America due to his knowledge of regional politics. Moreover, Trump is not exactly obsessed with following diplomatic protocol. In geostrategic terms, his meeting with Uribe and Pastrana was far more important than outraged Colombian journalists could realize.
It was through Senator Rubio, in fact, that Lilian Tintori, wife of Leopoldo López, Venezuela’s most prominent political prisoner, managed to meet Trump at the White House in February. The fact that the new US president welcomed Tintori and demanded López’s freedom (via Twitter, natch) signalled that the days of Obama’s appeasement of the Maduro regime were confined to history. In fact, Trump could deliver the much sought for coup-de-grâce to Maduro if he managed to halt or significantly reduce US imports of Venezuelan oil, a measure which would devastate the Chavista government.
This brings us back to Russia. Another shift in US foreign policy since Trump came to power has been his return to traditional deterrence after Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy allowed Vladimir Putin to truly flex Russia’s muscles in the Middle East for the first time since the end of the Cold War. By propping up the murderous Assad regime in Syria amid the outcries of an impotent international community (i.e. the European Union and the Obama administration), Putin could show the world that Russia was reassuming its role as a world power after a brief, Gorbachev-and-Yeltsin-induced hiatus.
While Obama famously allowed his threats of retaliation in Syria if Assad crossed the “red line” by using chemical weapons against civilians to go unheeded, Trump decided to take action after Assad’s forces allegedly gassed innocent people in the northwestern province of Idlib. By launching 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian airbase, Trump announced to the world- and to Putin- that a new sheriff was in town. As Victor Davis Hanson wrote:
The Tomahawk volley attack, for all its ostentatious symbolism, served larger strategic purposes. It reminded a world without morality that there is still a shred of a rule or two…
Trump’s missiles changed the nature of the world’s geopolitical game. As Owen Matthews argues in The Spectator,
with Trump’s bombing of a regime airbase… Syria suddenly went from being an asset to Russia to being a dangerous liability. Instead of being a diplomatic multipurpose tool, the fallout from Trump’s Syria raid now threatens a series of Russian vital interests…
The problem for Moscow is that it’s harder to get out of a war than into one. Moscow’s relationship with Trump and the future of sanctions are far more important priorities to Putin than the future of the Assad regime. Nonetheless, Pottery Barn rules apply — you broke it, you own it. Syria may no longer bring political dividends — but there’s no easy way for Putin to extract himself without losing face.
By offering a tottering Maduro support in Venezuela just as he once saved Assad from his imminent overthrow, however, Putin could be opening a new front in his new cold war with America, this time in Washington’s own backyard. This could explain Padrino’s visit to Moscow at this critical moment as well as his insistence on the danger of NATO’s “projection” in Latin America.
As the Venezuelan crisis descends into a civil war, the country’s internal conflict may be about to go global.