Photo: Reuters

The Venezuela-China Relations Aren’t Going Well

Caracas Chronicles was a media partner of a webinar on the implications of the Chinese interest in our country and the region, organized by Fundación Andrés Bello: Centro de Investigación Chino-Latinoamericano and Freedom House. Here are the highlights

Parsifal D’Sola Alvarado, executive director of Fundación Andrés Bello

In the beginning, Venezuela was China’s major relationship in the Americas, during the expansion policy of Hugo Chávez. Both governments were advancing their multipolar foreign policies agendas, but it was Chávez who opened the conduct. There were many high-level visits from both sides; Chávez visited Beijing six times, more than any other contemporary chief of State. Oil and ideological affinity could have been the spark for that friendship, but China’s interest was beyond that: Venezuela was selling an entry point to an integrated region, and China needed access to the Americas.

Now, what we have is a relationship that’s in very bad shape. Venezuela disappeared from the headlines in Chinese media. Not a single dose of a Chinese vaccine has been donated to  Venezuela. That speaks volumes. The Venezuelan debt has been increasing for years and from an economic point of view, this has been a monumental failure. I don’t see China giving Venezuela more loans, for that reason. Geostrategically, Venezuela is currently an obstacle for the relationship between China and other Latin American countries: if people associate China with the Venezuelan crisis, that affects the image of Beijing.

Dealing with China is a challenge: if relations happen with the same opacity of the Venezuelan case, democratic indicators will suffer. The China-Venezuela case leaves several lessons for the region, especially on how not to do things, how not to deal with China. This should be a cautionary tale for Latin America, where China is the second commercial partner.

Marta Ardila, Universidad Externado de Colombia

China needs allies in Latin America and that’s why it used Venezuela. Its goal is counterbalancing the U.S. influence in the region, a geopolitical interest. It’s the same with Russia. China became Colombia’s second commercial partner, and needs access to the countries of the South American Pacific to import raw materials and export finished goods.

Now, we’re seeing a reframing of the China-Venezuela relations, which will impact the China-Colombia relations. The Chinese are taking advantage of the region’s need for vaccines and foreign investment to alleviate the pandemic’s impact. There are, among us, circles who see with good eyes a closer relationship with China in Latin America: the old Left and some business people. Colombia got more than 2.5 million doses of Sinovac, the vaccine that leads vaccination in that country, and that’s being distributed massively in Mexico as well. 

We know of Chinese companies moving to the Colombian department of Norte de Santander, on the border with Venezuela. One wonders, who’s helping the Venezuelan regime survive? Because Maduro’s also changing the approach to China. Which actors are helping him the most? 

Oil and ideological affinity could have been the spark for that friendship, but China’s interest was beyond that: Venezuela was selling an entry point to an integrated region, and China needed access to the Americas.

Paulino Betancourt, UCV, research scientist, Fundación Andrés Bello 

China is the foreign actor with the highest participation in the Mining Arc. Although a Maduro decree designated the region as a special military zone and institutionalized opacity, we know that gold is being extracted illegally, with the help of irregular actors, and getting to China. We ignore the terms of this activity. China is interested in that opacity, partially for financial reasons related to the protection of its gold reserves. 

We’ve been working at the Foundation to obtain as much information as we can, but it’s second-hand information. However, it’s been enough to have an idea of the great impact the mining activity with Chinese involvement is having in deforestation and water pollution, even in protected areas like Canaima. We know of cooperation between Chinese companies and irregular groups in the Arc. Guerrillas or the like guard minerals on their way out to Colombia and other export points. In that circuit, the Chinese companies are present but hidden behind other names. 

Our study’s purpose is promoting better policies for investment in the mining sector and a defense of transparency. Neither the World Commerce Organization nor the UN have done anything about illegal gold extraction in Venezuela. 

President Xi Jinping said that the Silk Road started in Venezuela. The secure supply of energy for China, which includes Venezuelan oil, will go on. The agreements for scientific cooperation with China only brought a brain drain for Venezuela, because the researchers invited to China end up moving there, and Chinese investment in science and technology only happened in the areas of strict interest to them.

Jesús Hermoso, investigative journalist, Fundación Andrés Bello 

Regarding the economy, the relationship with China has been positive in countries like Bolivia during Evo Morales’s governments. It wasn’t the case with Venezuela. Chinese interest in Venezuela is geopolitical: there are no returns of investment, besides geopolitics. Billions of dollars have only served to turn Venezuela into a beachhead to the region. For the Venezuelan population, there are zero advantages at any level. During the pandemic, we’ve seen how Venezuela has been used as a base camp for “mask diplomacy”, with China increasing its influence by donating medical supplies, competing with American influence.

By systematizing this information, we’re doing a service to the nation (by revealing the economic data of the relationship with China, for example). Neither China nor Venezuela report the investment sums or the destination of the funds. We need to go deeper in the academic and journalistic research, but reporting this is like war journalism: you must deal with opacity and censorship, even risking your life. NGO Sin Mordaza reported two journalists were killed by paramilitaries in 2020 and regime forces once detained and threatened a journalist we had sent to the coal extraction area.