How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Last week, the young Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president, claiming that the country’s current president, Nicolás Maduro, had forfeited his right to rule by rigging elections in May 2018. Soon after, the United States, Brazil, and most other South American governments (with the exception of Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and Uruguay) recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
The decision by the majority of South American governments to back Guaidó was hailed by many as a crucial step forward in confronting Maduro’s authoritarianism. Yet in fact, South America no longer plays any significant role in the Venezuelan crisis. Maduro and his youthful challenger both know that although the armed forces will be the decisive domestic player, the only external actors that really matter are the United States and China and, to a lesser extent, Cuba and Russia.
This is a humiliating turn of events for South American governments, which since the region’s transition to democracy in the 1980s have made reducing interference from outside the region a paramount foreign policy goal. For Brazil in particular, such impotence in the face of a geopolitical crisis at its border symbolizes the dramatic failure of decades of Brazilian foreign policy, in which Brasília sought to make itself into the region’s diplomatic and political leader. As the crisis in Venezuela shows, South America is once again the playground of foreign powers.
South America has a long and troubled history with foreign interference—throughout the twentieth century, outside powers such as the United States backed coups and military dictatorships across the continent in pursuit of their own foreign policy interests. Since the region’s transition to democracy in the 1980s, governments have sought to protect both their sovereignty and their democracy by developing intraregional mechanisms to address one of South America’s major historical challenges: democratic backsliding and the political crises that often derived from it. These mechanisms have included so-called democracy clauses—joint commitments to punish those governments that violate democratic norms—such as the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Democratic Charter or the Southern Common Market (Mercosur)’s Protocol of Ushuaia. They have also included the use of concrete measures, such as suspension from regional organizations like Mercosur in response to democratic ruptures. Governments in the region have failed to prevent certain instances of democratic backsliding—Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, for example, was removed in a coup in 2009, and Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo was ousted in a controversial impeachment in 2012. In both cases, however, these countries suffered temporary diplomatic isolation in response to what regional leaders considered to be a break from normal constitutional practice.
Brazil has played a key role in setting and enforcing these norms—part of a conscious attempt by the country’s democratic rulers to position Brazil as the major diplomatic player in South America and actively engage in moments of regional crisis. In 1996, Brazil helped convince a power-hungry Paraguayan general, Lino Oviedo, not to stage a coup against President Juan Carlos Wasmosy, the country’s first democratically elected civilian in decades. Three years later, it again helped solve a political crisis in Paraguay, this time by granting asylum to (and organizing for the swift departure of) the beleaguered President Raúl Cubas Grau. And in the aftermath of a failed coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2002, Brazil organized the “Friends of Venezuela” group, which included the United States, Portugal, and Spain alongside Latin American governments, to mediate between the embattled president and the opposition.
South America is once again the playground of foreign powers.
These efforts at protecting democracy on the continent, however, proved to be no match for Chávez. The former Venezuelan president keenly understood that the mechanisms established over the past decades were designed to prevent overt political ruptures, such as coups, rather than to stop an elected government from taking incremental steps to undermine democracy. Chávez helped his case by signing shady oil deals with numerous governments, including Argentina, Bolivia, and several countries in Central America and the Caribbean, and by granting lucrative but equally opaque infrastructure contracts to Brazilian firms. Left-wing governments in Buenos Aires and Brasília had a degree of ideological sympathy for Chávez, but it was above all the Venezuelan president’s oil diplomacy and benign treatment of Brazilian firms that kept him on other governments’ good side. Indeed, Argentina and Brazil became enablers for Chávez during the first decade of this century, shielding him from international pressure while telling diplomats from the United States and elsewhere that they were able to control events in Caracas.
For Brazil, in particular, recent domestic political and economic crises have further reduced the country’s influence in Venezuela. Since 2013—the year that Maduro assumed the Venezuelan presidency following Chávez’s death from cancer—successive Brazilian governments, consumed by recession and then the outbreak of a major corruption scandal, have reduced Brasília’s foreign policy footprint, leaving the region largely rudderless and allowing the crisis in Venezuela to fester. In the interim, high-ranking diplomats across South America have privately admitted to me that Venezuela would inevitably collapse and that the political situation there had deteriorated so much that any mediation would be little more than window-dressing. Although they were right that any action taken after 2013 would likely have been too little too late, both Argentina and Brazil could have done much more during the Chávez years to pressure the Venezuelan president to respect basic democratic norms—for example, by making Venezuela’s 2012 accession to Mercosur conditional on respect for democracy.
Today, South America is paying the price for its dramatic failure to act in Venezuela. After two decades in which the continent’s governments have tried to reduce the sway of outside actors, the four most influential countries in Venezuela now are, in order, the United States, China, Russia, and Cuba. Other states in the region have only a limited ability to shape events in Caracas. This is a particular concern given that migration from Venezuela is already putting a strain on neighbors such as Brazil and Colombia. A continuation—or intensification—of the crisis will have spillover effects for years to come.
Despite recent political changes—symbolized by the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil—and a renewed determination across most of the region to address the Venezuelan crisis, South American governments will have little say in resolving it. Colombia may consent to host U.S. troops, but no countries in the region are willing to countenance direct interference. Bolsonaro, for instance, seems keen to support the United States rhetorically, but this is unlikely to amount to much in the way of practical assistance. The Brazilian military will not agree to putting their troops on the ground in Venezuela, which even pro-U.S. governments in the region would see as a dangerous precedent. In fact, governments are unlikely to go beyond the diplomatic measures, such as recognizing Guaidó, that they have already adopted.
Even if the Maduro government collapses, moreover, subsequent events in Caracas will be shaped in Washington and Beijing, thanks to the latter’s economic importance for Venezuela. (Moscow’s and Havana’s ties to Venezuela are largely political and would shrink if Maduro left office.) Maduro’s successor will need to sign massive deals with both Western and Chinese development banks to begin reconstructing the country—a painful process that will likely take decades. Indeed, many of Venezuela’s problems, including its extreme inequality and dependence on oil revenues, precede the rise of Chávez, and no future government will be able to solve them easily. Recovery to anything resembling pre-crisis levels is likely to take many years, requiring sustained attention from and help by U.S. and Chinese leaders.
The most likely candidates for regional leadership, meanwhile, are unlikely to offer much. Argentine President Mauricio Macri is weak owing to a struggling economy and a grueling reelection fight, while Bolsonaro must show that he can fix Brazil’s domestic economic and political problems before he will be in any position to take an active role abroad. Even Colombia, a close U.S. ally and Venezuela’s neighbor, still faces significant domestic challenges—including the need to integrate around one million Venezuelan migrants, a number that could grow in the coming months—and lacks both the ability and the political will to take on responsibility for reconstructing Venezuela.
Realistically, there are four useful actions that South American governments can take to help. First, they can better coordinate the response to the Venezuelan migration crisis across the continent. Leaders should organize a regional summit to discuss the matter and decide to jointly coordinate the registration, distribution, and integration of Venezuelan migrants. They should also set up a fund to compensate the countries most affected by the migratory crisis, such as Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Second, regional governments can help coordinate the delivery of medical and humanitarian aid to Venezuela once the Maduro government—or any successor government—allows it.
Third, South American states should offer amnesty and asylum to leading figures in the Maduro government. Although deeply frustrating, such a step would go a long way toward convincing Venezuela’s current leaders that they need not fight a bloody battle to remain in power to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya—authoritarian leaders who were executed after relinquishing power.
Finally, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and others should use the collapse of the Maduro regime as an opportunity to deepen cooperation among their armed forces. This could operate through existing institutions such as the Council of South American Defense and should involve, among other initiatives, joint military exercises, joint missions to deal with natural disasters, and joint participation in UN peacekeeping. The goal should be to increase peer pressure on Venezuela’s military—which stands to lose from a transition to democracy, given the privileges it has accumulated under Maduro—to stay within its barracks under any future leader. Although such cooperation would have only a limited and indirect impact on Venezuela’s military, it would, in future crises of this kind, offer neighboring countries an additional channel for dialogue and coordination—a necessity if South American governments ever want to influence what happens in their own backyard.