(FT.com, Michael Stott and Henry Foy, 24.Sep.2019) — Threats of military invasion, sweeping economic sanctions, people power, recognition of a rival government, even an attempted uprising — the US has tried almost everything to topple Nicolás Maduro.
But Venezuela’s revolutionary socialist president is still clinging to power after six years, despite a ruined economy, widespread shortages of food, power, fuel and medicine, serious human rights abuses and the exodus of more than four million refugees.
Mr Maduro now hopes that an official visit to Moscow this week will give him a fresh opportunity to remind the world that he remains in charge in Caracas and enjoys a powerful ally in the form of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The Venezuelan leader, ever mindful of the risk of coup attempts, announced his departure for Moscow in a tweet shortly before taking off on Monday evening. “We will seek new paths which deepen co-operation and exchange between our peoples within the framework of building a multipolar world,” he said.
The two presidents will hold a one-on-one meeting on Wednesday, the Kremlin said, but no agreements are planned to be signed, dampening Caracas’s hopes of badly needed financial support.
Moscow is Mr Maduro’s most prominent foreign supporter, as a critical energy supplier, defence partner, creditor and international cheerleader. But although state-controlled oil firm Rosneft has extended more than $6bn in loans to its Venezuelan counterpart PDVSA in recent years, no fresh credits have been advanced in the past two years and the Russians have been steadily extracting repayment.
“The most diverse aspects of bilateral co-operation will be discussed. Of course, they will exchange views on regional affairs, primarily Latin American affairs, on the topic of direct interference in Latin American affairs by third parties and states,” Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “Signing of documents is not planned.”
Russian officials have sought to paint Venezuela’s crisis as the fault of tight US economic sanctions imposed under the Trump administration and have condemned what they describe as unfair unilateral decision-making by Washington.
Venezuela’s opposition, however, believes Moscow’s patience with Mr Maduro is wearing thin. “What we’re hearing from the Russians is that Putin thinks Maduro is an idiot and doesn’t really like him but wants to be repaid,” said Vanessa Neumann, the official representative of opposition leader Juan Guaidó in London. “Maduro is in trouble . . . but the Russians are not inclined to put more money behind him.”
President Donald Trump at the start of this year recognised Mr Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, declaring that Mr Maduro’s win in last year’s presidential election was illegitimate. More than 50 European and Latin American nations followed the US lead but Mr Guaidó has been unable so far to dislodge Mr Maduro despite mass protests and an attempted uprising at the end of April.
The firing this month of Mr Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, a leading advocate of military action against Venezuela, deprives Mr Guaidó of one of his most pugnacious supporters. Mr Maduro has now outlasted five US national security advisers, leading to questions in Washington about the direction of US policy.
Mr Maduro’s visit, which was not confirmed by Moscow until a few hours before his plane landed in the city, comes after a steady flow of meetings between Venezuelan and Russian officials this year.
Past meetings have elicited varying levels of tangible support. While Moscow agreed in November to restructure $3.15bn worth of debt owed by Caracas, Mr Maduro’s last visit in December 2018 brought vague promises of investments in the oil sector that Russian officials privately talked down.
Mr Putin told the FT in June that Moscow “has nothing to do with what is happening in Venezuela”, but that “Russian specialists and instructors” were working there as part of military supply agreements.
Moscow has made several weapons deals with Caracas and flew two nuclear-capable bombers there last year in a show of support. The FT revealed last month that Rosneft was Venezuela’s sole supplier of petrol in June.
“In the past few years, Russia has become a crucial support for us in various spheres. In the first instance; in the sphere of military-technical co-operation,” Mr Maduro said in an interview with Russian state TV this week. “Co-operation in the sphere of Russian-Venezuelan trade is flourishing too.”