The recent discontent in Venezuela gives us more to think about than just the internal unrest that is occurring there with the recent claim to the presidency. The press and the media reported on the 23 Jan 19 that the opposition leader ‘Juan Guaido’ declared himself the country’s interim president. The decision to declare himself as such was due to the previous general election that showed the current “elected” president Nicolas Maduro won by a very narrow margin of 1.6%. The election was marred with accusations of the elections being unjust and which a large majority of the opposition boycotted. Other opposition candidates were either imprisoned or had fled the country.
There is no surprise that people have fled the country rather than be imprisoned there. Reports of inmates running prisons are not uncommon along with violent deaths. In 2015 Venezuela was deemed to be the most violent country not at war. The National Assembly head, Juan Guaido, declared himself as the acting president as the Venezuelan National Assembly failed to recognize the re-election of the former president and said that the position of president was vacant due to the controversial elections. Nicolas Maduro immediately blamed the incident on the United States and their attempt to force a coup in order to replace him after the United States sent a message of support to the interim president. On the 23 Jan 19 Maduro stated that he would revise his diplomatic ties with the United States after US Vice President Mike Pence videoed support for the newly announce Guaido Presidency. On the 24 Jan 19 Maduro severed ties with the United States and ordered American diplomats out of the country.
At the same time the Venezuelan military high command stated they were behind the “elected” President and accused Juan Guaido of attempting a ‘coup d’état’, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, warned the Presidency of Maduro against using lethal force against demonstrators. On the 28 Jan 19 the United States imposed sanctions on the Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA and requested the Venezuelan military to accept a peaceful transfer of power. Russia stated it would everything to support Maduro but did not state what those terms would mean.
Russia immediately condemned the move and later Turkey, Mexico and China also failed to recognise the interim president. Russia also condemned the request for an election saying that it violated International Law and would lead to a “direct path to bloodshed.” Later on the 31 Jan 19 Juan Guaido in a newspaper interview said that it would be advantageous for Russia and China to accept the new change and that Venezuela would be responsible to its creditors and bondholders.
The United Kingdom, Spain, Germany and France also supported the move and stated that Nicholas Maduro hold an election within eight days (deadline ended on the 3/4 Feb 19) or they would recognise the interim president as the leader of Venezuela but Maduro refused. But on the 24 Jan 19 Guaido hinted at an amnesty for Maduro but it was reported on the 26 Jan 19 that Guaido had rejected any consideration of talks with Maduro. On the 4 Feb 19 European leaders recognised Juan Guaido as the leader of Venezuela. The previous Venezuelan president said on the 2 Feb 19 he would not accept “ultimatums.”
Problems in the country are mainly caused by foreign debts and high inflation. Consumer prices in Dec 18 rose by 1, 700, 000%. For a population of 31.43 million that is way above the extreme. The Venezuelan military seems to be sitting in the background at the moment and appear not to take sides. Reports on the 1 Feb 19 said that Venezuelan Air Force General Francisco Yanez switched alliance and attempted to have others follow his example he also claimed that the transition to democracy would happen soon. Defections from the non-commissioned ranks also occurred and Raynell Martinez Mujica a Major in the Air Force claimed that 90% of the armed force were against Nicolas Maduro.
Venezuelan Foreign Supporters
So why is an ordinary coup of this kind far more reaching than just an internal coup? Several countries have publicly supported Nicolas Maduro (not Hezbollah although they are included below).
On the 17 Nov 18 Russia announced it planned to build a military base of the Venezuelan coast on the island of La Orchila. The island is approximately 130 kilometres from the Venezuelan mainland and the capital Caracas. Russia was to deploy TU-160 strategic aircraft on the base which would be the largest semi-permanent posting of Russian military since the Cuban-Missile crisis in 1962. Prior to this announcement on the 11 Nov 18 Russia and the United States clashed due to Russian TU-160 nuclear capable aircraft landed in Venezuela in a show of support to President Maduro. The two aircraft landed at the Simon Bolivar International Airport which is the main civilian airport 21 kilometres outside the countries capital Caracas which is Venezuela’s gateway.
La Orchila is a Venezuelan Naval base, Antonio Diaz. In Mar 09 President Hugo Chavez offered the use of the military station to the Russians to use as a base to locate their strategic bombers. Chavez denied this and the Russians cited technical problems. However, in 2018 the Russian military released plans to deploy TU-160 aircraft to the island. In Sep 08 the Russian nuclear-powered missile cruiser Pyotr Velikiy along with other Russian navel ships from the Russian Northern Fleet joined the Venezuelan Navy in a joint exercise, this was the first power projection in the region since the end of the Cold War which ended in 1991.
Venezuelan law forbids a full-time military base from being built and manned within its borders but a “temporary” military base would be acceptable. Two days prior to the 17 Nov 18 announcement two TU-160 nuclear capable aircraft conducted a training tasking with the Venezuelan Air Force. This caused some tension between Moscow and Washington. On the 28 Jan 19 Russian officials had vowed to do all it could to support Venezuela and criticised the United States for imposing sanctions on the Venezuelan oil industry. The United States was also accused of attempting to provoke a regime change. When asked about a military presence there was no direct answer from the Russians stating that the issue was too sensitive to discuss. However, on the 26 Jan 19 a British newspaper claimed that Russia had sent 400 Russian mercenaries to Venezuela but this was later discarded. No other open source material claimed the same headline.
If a regime change occurred then Russia stands to lose billions of dollars. However, Juan Guaido had asked the country to accept the change in leadership which was probably a sign to the country that there would be no problems in the future regarding repayment of loans taken out by the previous president/s. This maybe enough to keep Russian interference out of the internal politics. In reality Russia has a large distance to cover if it attempted to deploy large military resources in the country and would further infuriate the United States and goad it to deploying its military first in an effort to thwart any Russian military involvement.
Venezuela over the past twenty years has become an important ally of Iran. The two countries had signed economic and military agreements that value into billions of dollars, but according to reports none of the joint agreements had been successful. But since these agreements were signed under the Chavista era the Nicolas Maduro regime has kept warm relations with Iran. It was reported on the 01 Dec 18 that Iran had launched a domestically made navel destroyer which the Iranian state media reported to have radar-evading stealth properties amongst other capabilities. At that time the Iranians also reported that it was to send two or three naval vessels to Venezuela on a mission that could last five months.
On the 04 Jan 19 Iran announced that it was deploy warships in the Atlantic Ocean in Mar 19 and the operation may take up to five months. The newly built Sahand which was announced in early Jan 18 would be part of the flotilla. Part of the reason for sending the small fleet was in response to the fifth fleet presence which was based in Bahrain. It is unsure as to why the Iranians would deploy navel vessels to the area. It is possible that it would remove gold mined in the country and shipped back to Iran. The possibility of the gold price being used to prop up a falling Iranian economy due to United States sanctions is a possibility. The announcement to deploy the Iranian ships was made before the current Venezuelan unrest. The vessels could also be used to collect money from its illegal money laundering and drug activities.
If the United States assisted Guaido with military aid the whole illegal industry that Iran has set up over the years would be in jeopardy. But the Iranians lack the military might and ability to stop the United States acting and can only resort to its normal voice of rhetoric. The action would also be a blow in propping up the Iranian economy now and in the future bringing a greater strain to the country and the current leadership.
China is Venezuela’s top lender, China has loaned Venezuela 17 loans which equal to $62.2billion. Between 2005-2015 Chinese companies had invested $19.15 billion in various projects and with the Venezuelan government inability to repay from 2016-2018 it added just £1.84 billion to its investments. China has a huge interest in Venezuela and keeping Maduro in power for economic reasons. Russia a member of the United Nations called for dialogue to find a way forward and China stated that it did not interfere with other countries affairs and opposes outside interference. In 2008 China helped Venezuela launch a communications satellite which was to allow communities to access educational and medical information.
It is unlikely that China would get involved with any form of military assistance to Maduro and would sit back and watch what happens. Guaido would probably make the same statement to China as it has to the Russians. There is no reason why Venezuela cannot pay its debts providing it manages it resources correctly and effectively.
There is a little trade between the two countries to which Mexico exports maize, medicine, baby food, machinery and toiletries. Mexico’s direct investment in Venezuela amounts to $1.4 billion and is the 11th largest destination for Mexican investments, there are multinational Mexican companies operating in Venezuela; Fomento Economico Mexicano S.A.B. de C.V. (FEMSA), Grupo Bimbo, Mabe and Mexichem. Mexico is also against outside interference in the current internal power struggle. Both nations are part of the Association of Caribbean States, Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, Latin American Integration Association, Organization of American States, Organization of Ibero-American States and the United Nations. There appears to be no threat of intervention from Mexico.
Turkey sees the internal struggle between Maduro and Guaido as a similar case to that of Turkey’s attempted coup in Jul 16 and therefore Turkey shows support for the current Mauro government. Turkey exports food and humanitarian aid to Venezuela, Venezuela sends gold to Turkey. There are strong political links between the two countries. Turkey will attempt to see that it is a strong partner, but only if Russia does. Should Russia attempt anything military no doubt Turkey will standby them. Militarily Turkey is not in a position to do react.
Hezbollah has used Venezuela as a hub to launder money for its enterprise of power in Lebanon, military involvement in Syria and other terrorism activities abroad. Money laundering in South America by Hezbollah is rife along with counterfeiting activities that not only are run in Venezuela but in other South American countries, there is also a strong connection between Hezbollah, Venezuela and drug trafficking to which corrupt Venezuelan officials receive a large kick-back.
Venezuela’s vice president, Tareck El Aissami, has been linked to anti-Semitism, drug trafficking and has ties to Iran and Hezbollah. It was reported on the 13 Feb 17 that the United States Government had placed the Vice President on a sanctions list for drug trafficking.
Venezuela has huge debts to Russia and China with oil, loans and military; it is weak and is being exploited by several countries and organisations for their own use and in the meantime putting external pressure on the Americans. (For other information on Venezuelas imports and exports click on the link https://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/ven/ )
Wheat – On the 19 May 17 Venezuela announced that it had signed a deal with Russia for them to supply 60, 000 tons of wheat to Venezuela per month. In exchange for this deal Russia was to establish five new companies to build Russian industrial vehicles.
Oil – Venezuela is heavily in debt even though it has one of the richest oil fields in the world. Currently Venezuela is heavily in debt to Russia and China and it is believed that much of the oil that it sells goes to pay off huge debts to Russia and China. In Apr 06 the Venezuelan populist government took control of two European oil producing giants; Total from France and Eni of Italy, the energy minister of the day also stated that Exxon Mobil was not welcome in Venezuela.
Gold – Nicolas Maduro has been desperately attempting to retrieve $550 million in gold held by the United Kingdom’s Bank of England. It is an attempt to stop this much needed funding getting caught up in any sanctions against Venezuela. The country is attempting to use the gold finance to carry out barter operations with Turkey which will import much needed food. The Venezuelan interim leader, Jaun Guido, had praised the UK’s bank for not returning the gold and had applauded the Bank of England for not complying with Nicolas Maduro’s request. On the 30 Jan 19 there were rumours that a Russian aircraft was sent to Venezuela to remove 20 tonnes of gold from Venezuela. Russian authorities moved to squash any such rumours that $840 million of the country’s reserves were being moved to Moscow. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that an empty passenger aircraft with two crews on board had departed Russia for Venezuela.
Russian operations from South America would be affected and its ability to put pressure on the United States with air operations in the guise of training exercises with the Venezuelan air force would be a serious blow in what appears to be the Russian President Putins resurrection of the former USSR’s cold-war with the west. This has to be the largest set-back to Russia as it has no other foothold in the South of America. Venezuela was its strongest ally. Currently there is no mention of Jaun Guido to Russia regarding the military base on La Orchila.
Russia will also be concerned regarding the debts that Venezuela has to the former Soviet country, but as has been mentioned earler the new president has requested that Russia be tolerant and the money owed would be repaid. No doubt Iran would use the base on La Orchila to conduct navel patrols on the border of international waters and the United States coastal waters in an attempt to intimidate the US. Iranian navel ships will probably armed with “defensive” missiles capable of reaching the American mainland. Should Iran be attacked if it pursues a nuclear grade weapon or Israel attacks Iran for a similar reason, Iran would be able to fire its “defensive” missiles. The Russian base on the island of La Orchila would be used as a logistics location whereby Iranian naval ships could resupply arms, ammunition, fuel and logistics and a safe area away from Iran as it has no safe harbour in that part of the world. The naval vessels would not be able to function and operate if a new president was in office and denied Russia the “temporary” navel station and was pro-American.
Turkey, although a NATO member, would probably support Russia and Iran. Currently Turkey appears to side with any nation that is not aligned to the United States. Russia, Iran being two. The Turkish economy is currently having problems and should a new pro-American president stop sending gold to Turkey then its economy may suffer more. This would also be another negative point in Turkish/United States relationship which is strained at the moment.
Hezbollah will stand to lose a great deal should the Americans assist Guaido. One condition that the United States Administration could ask for is the ousting of Hezbollah from Venezuela. Hezbollah’s money laundering, gold racketing, drug racketing and other activities in Venezuela and other South American countries would be severely affected. Its ability to fund terrorism in the Levant and elsewhere would have a serious impact.