There is fresh hope for Venezuelans this week as Norway seeks to broker a new round of talks between the Maduro regime and Juan Guaido’s opposition party. The hope is that if Maduro is offered a way to end his rule without international repercussions or imprisonment, he may be prepared to stand down.
Norway has a long history of playing the middle man in these kinds of political talks. But is it being optimistic in thinking it can bring about change in Venezuela? After all, it isn’t simply a case of getting Maduro and Guaido to agree to a transition. Venezuela has become an international pawn, caught between the US’s support for Guaido and China and Russia’s tacit endorsement of Maduro’s dictatorship.
Such is the scale of Venezuelan poverty – hyper inflation means that a kilo of rice costs around 220,000 bolivars ($4.40), 56 per cent of the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela – that Maduro may well be questioning the point of clinging to power. Oil revenues have long since dried up under his rule and there is very little financial gain that he hasn’t already tried to extract from the country’s failed economy.
But even if Maduro is open to persuasion – his very willingness to take part in these talks suggests that this is the case – the major block to regime change is China. Beijing had 25 billion dollars of unpaid debt accrued when the government ran the oil industry into the ground in the early 2000s. The original idea behind these Chinese loans was that Venezuela would repay by providing China with oil at a fixed price. But Venezuela’s economic crisis means that the debt remains unpaid and is growing by the day. So far China has extended a ‘forbearance’ on this debt, meaning that Maduro has not had to pay up.
President Xi Jinping said during a visit to Russia last month that ‘China is willing to work with the international community to play a positive and constructive role on the Venezuela issue.’ But the fact remains that, if it weren’t for Chinese debt, the Maduro regime would have most likely fallen years ago. China has stood by and watched while the Venezuelan population has descended into starvation because it has been politically expedient for it to keep Maduro in power.
Venezuela is a key socialist ally rich in natural resources and strategically positioned close to the US. China is not suddenly going to cede its power over its future by allowing an unknown like Guaido to form a government, unless Guaido can agree to dance to China’s tune. Guaido seems to have grasped this fact. He has made overtures to China in recent weeks, making the case as to why a future Venezuelan government led by him would be in the economic interests of China. If China is to be persuaded they will need a hard and fast commitment from him that the country will not renege on its Chinese debt and, given the crippling scale of its borrowing, this will be a difficult pledge for Guaido to make. He will also need to downplay his links to the US. Guaido not only studied in America in his younger years but has received the public backing of both Trump and Mike Pence.
Meanwhile, China is walking an increasingly risky diplomatic tightrope. Xi Jinping’s recent statements seem to acknowledge that there is a need for action in Venezuela. But it’s obvious to even the most distant of observers that a Chinese intervention in Venezuela is unlikely to entail the restoration of genuine democracy.
The last thing that China wants to do is pander to the interests of the US by backing Guaido. Nor does it want its debts to remain unpaid. It is rapidly becoming apparent to Guaido that he will not succeed in unseating Maduro without the endorsement of China. The question remains – what will the price of this endorsement be?