The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The divide on Venezuela: Who’s supporting Maduro, and who’s following the U.S. lead in recognizing Guaidó

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president on Jan. 23, while Nicolás Maduro broke relations with the United States. (Video: Reuters)

SYDNEY — Pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro mounted on Monday, as Australia joined the ranks of nations that now recognize self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim leader.

The announcement came only two days after the United States urged nations around the world to abandon Maduro.

The 35-year-old Maduro rival Guaidó was largely unknown outside Venezuela until the beginning of this year, but he is now backed by the United States, Israel, Canada and a number of South American countries, including Brazil, Argentina and Peru, as other governments are considering whether to throw their support behind the Venezuelan opposition.

But Maduro isn’t yet as isolated as the United States would like him to be. The government’s key backers, Russia and China, continue to support him.

Here’s an overview over who is on which side, and why.

Recognizing Guaidó was easier for some countries than for others

The U.S. backing of opposition leader Guaidó last Wednesday triggered a furious response by Maduro, who set an ultimatum for U.S. diplomats to leave the country shortly afterward. To close observers of U.S.-Venezuelan relations, the step to recognize an opposition leader as the legitimate president came hardly as a surprise. Animosity between governments of the two nations goes back to the 1990s, when former president Hugo Chávez rose to power in Venezuela, fueling anti-American sentiments throughout his time in office.

Both Chavez and Maduro have frequently attempted to discredit the opposition by portraying them as puppets of the United States. As tensions spiraled out of control late last week, the U.S. State Department pulled some staff out of the country and urged U.S. citizens to leave.

Similar concerns for the safety of citizens initially played a role in preventing Israel from following the United States in recognizing opposition leader Guaidó. Israel was reportedly concerned that the move could put the Jewish community in Venezuela at risk. But diplomatically, there wasn’t much to lose for the Israelis: The two countries have had no official diplomatic relations for about a decade. The Israeli side eventually decided that Guaidó’s recognition could be a rare opportunity for a reboot in relations and recognized the opposition leader on Sunday.

President Trump’s 2017 threat of military action in Venezuela may have caused further headache to nations who considered recognizing Guaidó over the past few days. Last year, 10 South American leaders publicly rejected “the exercise of violence, threat, or use of force in Venezuela.” At the time, they were joined by Canada, which also signed the statement.

In its recognition announcement of Guaidó, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland made sure to reiterate those concerns last week, writing that “a resolution of the crisis in Venezuela can only be achieved through the leadership and courage of Venezuelans themselves.”

Brazil’s new far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, whose government was among the first to recognize Guaidó even before the U.S. announcement, said earlier in January that he would do “everything possible to reestablish order, democracy and freedom there.” Other right-wing leaders in Latin America have echoed Bolsonaro’s remarks to topple the socialist Venezuelan leader.

Europe’s diplomatic heavyweights still hadn’t fully thrown their weight behind the Venezuelan opposition by recognizing Guaidó on Monday, even though Spain, France, Britain and Germany all said over the weekend that they were poised to do so.

French President Emmanuel Macron said in a tweet on Saturday that his government was willing to recognize the opposition leader “unless elections are announced within eight days.” Similar language with references to that ultimatum were used by Spanish and German officials.

For Maduro’s global supporters, backing him is a risky bet

While Europe has so far been somewhat more careful about fully embracing Guaidó, the European demands for new elections were swiftly condemned by Russia, which has spearheaded Maduro’s international defense. “The cynical, overt interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state continues. It must stop,” read a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry over the weekend, according to Reuters.

Moscow isn’t alone in its support for Maduro — China, Syria, Iran, Turkey and a number of other, smaller nations have similarly voiced objections to the U.S.-led campaign to recognize Guaidó as the new Venezuelan leader.

To Russia, Venezuela has so far been a key cornerstone in its strategy to win over countries in the proximity of the United States, both for military and economic reasons. Media reports of Russia’s willingness to deploy aircraft to Venezuela appeared to confirm U.S. concerns over closer military ties between the two countries last December. A regime change in Venezuela wouldn’t bode well for those plans.

But as my colleague Anton Troianovski explained, there’s more at stake for Russia than future military bases. Moscow has poured billions of dollars into Venezuela in recent years in the hope that the investments would turn Maduro into a long-term business partner. In return for Moscow’s bailouts, Russian companies were awarded lucrative arms contracts and Moscow gained control over oil fields in the country. While it is uncertain if Guaidó would risk shutting the door to Russia entirely, the U.S. impact on his possible ascent to power would likely limit Russia’s future sway over the country.

The same applies to China, Venezuela’s other major international backer. While Beijing’s support for Maduro was less strongly worded last week, there is no indication that China may change sides. Like Russia, the Chinese have invested heavily in the country, mostly in the hope of gaining access to its vast oil and gas resources.

The current crisis could still play into Beijing’s hands if Maduro manages to stay on. The Trump administration is pondering imposing sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports, which would allow China to tap into the country’s resources nearly unchallenged.

For the other countries supporting Venezuela, the reasons vary and often have a lot to do with relations with the United States. In the case of fellow leftist Latin American governments Bolivia and Cuba, the solidarity is clearly ideology, while for Iran, often a target of U.S. ire, it appears to be about backing a fellow thorn in the Americans' side. Turkey, nominally a U.S. ally and member of NATO, could be sticking with Maduro because of extensive economic ties with Venezuela.

So far though, much of the world seems to be backing the U.S. view, suggesting that the United States can still set an example other countries deem appropriate two years into the Trump presidency.

More on WorldViews:

‘Infinite sadness’: Spanish toddler who fell down well found dead after 13 days of rescue efforts

The most notable rebuke of China at Davos didn’t come from a Trump ally. It came from George Soros.

‘It’s going to be worse’: As Venezuela’s crisis grew, more babies died