Eric Farnsworth is vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in Washington.
President Trump’s first trip to Latin America as president could be among the most consequential of any previous U.S. leader to the region. The key will be whether he engages China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin not just on bilateral issues but on regional priorities, as well.
In Argentina for the Group of 20 summit, the U.S. president will face a daunting agenda. Discussions with Xi on trade and economic relations have attracted most of the attention, whereas Russia’s renewed attacks on Ukraine must also be addressed. Other topics crying out for attention include condemnation of the brutal Saudi slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and full-throated support of host nation Argentina. Additionally, Trump plans to sign the revamped North American trade agreement with his Canadian and Mexican counterparts, teeing it up for congressional consideration in 2019.
But there is an additional topic where meaningful progress at the G20 might be made and must be attempted: reversing Venezuela’s accelerating collapse.
The Western Hemisphere has never before seen a refugee crisis as dire as Venezuela’s, wholly engendered by the kleptocratic, incompetent regime of Nicolás Maduro. At least 3 million have fled since 2014, according to the United Nations. With the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela’s energy sector is in disarray; production is falling precipitously and environmental devastation is alarming. Health services have broken down, and food is increasingly scarce for all but those who pledge fealty to the regime. Meanwhile, crime has spiked and Caracas is now more dangerous than Baghdad or Kabul.
Hugo Chávez’s utopian vision for Venezuela has proved to be a chimera, leaving little but a corrupt, worsening dystopia. Still, the regime has its enablers, in particular those who support it financially and those who continue to provide diplomatic air cover preventing meaningful international steps to address the crisis. Among them: China and Russia.
Both nations are deeply supportive of the Venezuelan regime. China has provided billions of dollars in loans for future oil deliveries, as well as sales of technology for state repression. Reuters just reported that Chinese telecommunications company ZTE has worked with the regime in Caracas to develop powerful tools of social monitoring and control.
For its part, Russia has earned significant hard currency through sales of military equipment while also working with the Maduro regime to escape international sanctions levied in response to Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine. Russia has also taken a position in Venezuelan oil fields; the CEO of the Russian oil company Rosneft just traveled to Caracas to complain that Venezuela has been prioritizing oil deliveries to China.
International financial, diplomatic and security support has allowed the regime to operate in an increasingly authoritarian, oppressive manner outside the law.
The Trump administration has repeatedly said that reversing Venezuela’s collapse is a top regional priority. Other governments, including G20 host Argentina, have said the same. In Buenos Aires, Trump can remind both Xi and Putin that, unless they want to end up holding worthless promissory notes, they should acknowledge that the Maduro government is incapable of economic recovery and that the best chance of covering their substantial bets is under a successor government with the legitimacy to institute fundamental economic and political reforms.
On Jan. 10, 2019, when Maduro’s current mandate ends, the last vestige of government legitimacy in Venezuela expires. Although neither China nor Russia cares much about democracy or vibrant elections, they do care about their own financial and strategic well-being. It’s doubtful that either wants to bet on a bus careening out of control. Trump therefore has a real opportunity to seek Chinese and Russian agreement to work constructively for a transition government after Jan. 10, leading to free, fair, internationally observed and recognized elections.
China and Russia have no particular truck with the Maduro regime. He is a means to an end. But the tragedy of Venezuela cannot wait. Buenos Aires offers a chance to reverse course for the millions of Venezuelans otherwise consigned to face the future with little more than the dimming light of fading hope.