What is China doing in Venezuela

Domestic conflicts

Claudia Zilla

Claudia Zilla, born 1973, is a Senior Fellow in the America Research Group at the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP), Berlin. She studied political science, sociology and psychology at the University of Heidelberg, where she also received her doctorate. Her research focuses on questions of democracy and development as well as the regional and international politics of Latin American countries.

The conflict in Venezuela has created an economic, social and humanitarian crisis. The populist reform project of the former President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) has turned into an authoritarian, civil-military project under Nicolás Maduro. Repressive methods of rule dominate behind a democratic facade.

Caracas 03/10/2020: Supporters of the opposition leader Guaido take action against a street blockade by the police that is cutting off the route to the National Assembly. (& copy picture-alliance, NurPhoto | Jonathan Lanza)

Current conflict situation

Since the opposition won the parliamentary elections in 2015, President Nicolás Maduro has ruled increasingly authoritarian. Democratic and rule of law principles were largely repealed. The forces supporting the regime are the Chavist [1] ruling party PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido xde Venezuela) and the armed forces. The military plays a central role not only in the area of ​​security, but also in politics and economics. The government also relies on militias (Milicia Bolivariana), originally irregular assault groups of armed civilians, which were integrated into the regular armed forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana) in February 2020.

Venezuela has turned into an autocracy with rigged elections acting as a democratic fig leaf. The restriction of pluralism and the dismantling of institutional controls go hand in hand with growing political persecution and repression of the population by the security apparatus. Politically motivated arrests of civilians and the military, looting and lynching, torture in captivity and extrajudicial executions are the order of the day. [2] Citizens hardly have any means of defending themselves against it. There are no longer any guarantees based on the rule of law. The judiciary is aligned and civilians are sometimes sentenced by military judges.

The government's mismanagement, coupled with lower oil prices and high dependency on raw materials, led to an economic and supply crisis. Added to this are the devastating effects of the Covid 19 pandemic, the extent of which cannot yet be accurately recorded. For 2020, the economy is expected to shrink by a further fifteen percent compared to the previous year and the annual inflation rate will reach the 15,000 percent mark. [3] At 44%, Venezuela has the highest rate of employable people in Latin America who are not employed. In the country with the largest oil reserves in the world, which now imports fuel from Iran, 79.3% of the population cannot afford the basic basket of necessary food; 96% of households live in poverty and 79% in extreme poverty. It is estimated that 30% of children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition. The supply of food and medicines, most of which have to be imported, is catastrophic. Black market and cross-border smuggling are flourishing.

The emergency promotes emigration, especially to neighboring countries - a phenomenon that is now referred to as the regional refugee crisis. Around 2.3 million people left Venezuela in the period 2017-2019. There are now 5 million Venezuelans in the diaspora, while 28.4 million still live in the country. [4] The corona crisis has made the situation of refugees and migrants considerably worse, as many of them, stranded in border areas and airports, are sometimes abandoned by both the country of origin and the country of destination.

Causes and Background

The democratic process of erosion and economic decline began under the government of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013). They worsened under Nicolás Maduro, who was personally appointed as his successor by the terminally ill Chávez in December 2012. In contrast to Chávez, Maduro faced far greater challenges: the consequences of mismanagement with significantly lower oil prices, expenditure on state expansion, wear and tear due to prolonged government, dissatisfaction among the population and the rise of opposition parties.

The beginning of Maduro's tenure coincided with the loss of prestige and majority for Chavismo. To prevent the loss of power, Maduro manipulates the elections, the franchise and the electoral system. Since the last defeat in 2015, the electoral authority and judiciary, which have been brought into line, have protected against election fraud several times. The transition to an authoritarian system was sealed by the disempowerment of the opposition-dominated national assembly (parliament). Since August 2017, the newly created constituent assembly, which consists exclusively of representatives loyal to the government, has taken on the legislative tasks.

The Supreme Court takes massive action against the opposition by arresting its leaders and filling the governing bodies of the parties with people loyal to the regime. In this situation, the heterogeneous opposition parties, most of which formed the Round Table of Democratic Unity (Mesa de Unidad Democrática, MUD) in 2008, are struggling to survive.

At the beginning of 2019 the conflict entered a new phase. On January 10, the National Assembly declared Maduro's re-election in May 2018 invalid and dismissed him from office. On January 15, 2019, she declared the presidency vacant and Maduro a usurper by means of a legislative act. After the National Assembly had elected the MP of the People's Will (Voluntad Popular), Juan Guaidó, as its chairman, it appointed him with recourse to the Constitution (Articles 233, 333 and 350) [5] on January 23, 2019 at a mass rally in Caracas as interim president.

Large sections of the population and the international community (including Germany) stood behind the until then largely unknown charismatic young politicians. Guaidó claims the legitimate presidency of Venezuela for himself, but without being able to exercise actual power in the country, i.e. effective control over the armed forces, administration and territory. Thus the legal acts of the National Assembly, which are supposed to pave the way to a democratic transition, remained ineffective. [6]

When Guaidó's term of office as chairman of the National Assembly expired in January 2020, regime forces prevented a proper vote in the plenary. A minority of parliamentarians loyal to the regime and defected elected former member of the opposition party First Justice (Primero Justicia), Luis Parra, as the new chairman, who was also recognized by Maduro in this position. But Guaidó was also confirmed in office by a majority in the National Assembly.

Before the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 6, 2020, the opposition is once again faced with the dilemma of participating in rigged elections and thereby legitimizing them or protesting against the non-democratic electoral conditions by boycotting. On June 14, 2020, eleven political parties of the opposition officially declared that they would neither validate the upcoming "electoral farce" through their participation nor recognize the results. [7]

Processing and solution approaches

To strengthen the security sector, the Maduro regime can fall back on Cuban advisors and Russian weapons. Venezuela also receives generous loans from China and support for the oil sector from Iran. Significantly, these states have so far not been involved in negotiation initiatives. The last attempt at dialogue between the government and the opposition took place in 2019 in Oslo (and on Barbados) with the mediation of Norway. Like the previous talks, it failed.

Despite the strong, sometimes more personal than institutional, commitment of its Secretary General, Luis Almagro, there was no sufficient consensus among the members of the Organization of American States (OAS) for sanctions against Venezuela, nor was there a viable approach to conflict resolution. Nevertheless, the Maduro government received criticism and political isolation from the great majority of Latin American states.

In August 2017 Venezuela was suspended from the integration bloc Mercosur [8] under application of the democracy clause. In the same month, the "Lima Group" was formed in the Peruvian capital with the aim of exchanging ideas about ways out of the crisis in Venezuela and supporting democratic change in Venezuela. The group includes Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Peru.

The Lima Group experienced a reactivation from January 2019, whereby it also intensified its cooperation with extra-regional actors, including the European Union (EU). Despite internal divisions over the appropriate course of action in the Venezuela crisis, the EU has formed an international contact group (IKG) to which the EU, Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden as well as Bolivia, Costa Rica and Belong to Ecuador. From February 7, 2019, the IKG took part in several meetings with other Latin American countries, as well as in technical and political missions and published numerous statements. But these regional and international efforts were largely unsuccessful.

The USA, for many years the main buyer of Venezuelan oil, has been imposing increasingly tougher sanctions against Venezuela since 2015. These include visa restrictions, property and asset freezes, a ban on US nationals and institutions from transacting with anyone on a list, [9] canceling oil shipments from Venezuela's largest oil company, PDVSA, and transferring control through its Texas-based subsidiary CITGO and through the Venezuelan government accounts in the US to Guaidó's interim government.

On March 31, 2020, the US presented the "Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela". [10] This is a catalog of steps that the US government demands of the Maduro regime on the way to democratic transition. It also contains the consideration that Washington promises for it. At the same time, the pressure on Maduro and his confidants is maintained. This dual strategy includes, for example, that on March 26, 2020, indictments against leaders of the regime for "drug terrorism" were brought in the USA and a bounty was offered. [11]

In November 2017, the EU issued an arms embargo and a number of personal sanctions against representatives of the regime (e.g. freezing of assets and a ban on entry into the EU), which have expanded over time. Other European countries, such as Switzerland and Norway, joined the EU sanctions. Since the worsening political crisis in 2019 and in response to the Corona crisis, the EU has been increasingly supporting the Venezuelan people with emergency aid and financial grants as part of multilateral initiatives.

Conflict history

The Chavismo à la Maduro can be seen as the third phase in Venezuela's recent political development. A first turning point was the transition from the "Bolivarian Revolution" to "Socialism of the 21st Century" under Chávez between 2002 and 2006, which is to be understood as a radicalization of his political project. Six years after a failed coup attempt in 1992, the officer Chávez won the presidential elections with the promise to make democracy more participatory, distribute oil wealth more fairly and fight corruption. The re-establishment of the country through a new constitution, an active social policy with diverse social programs, the stronger political control of the state oil company PDVSA and the participation of the armed forces in development-policy tasks should serve this purpose.

In the course of general strikes and demonstrations by employers and trade unions, Chávez was arrested and removed from office on April 12, 2002. The head of the Fedecámaras business association, Pedro Carmona, took over the office and announced elections. A group of generals supported the coup, but it lasted only two days until groups loyal to Chavez mobilized in society and in the military and brought him back to power. This coup experience on both sides had a lasting impact on the mutual enemy and led to a loss of confidence between the government and the opposition. From 2002 onwards, Chávez radicalized his policy of governing society and the economy. He increasingly distanced himself from the principles and rules of democracy, the market economy and the so-called Western world order. Chavez died in Caracas on March 5, 2013. With the government of his successor, Maduro, Venezuela sank deeper and deeper into a political, socio-economic and humanitarian crisis, in the context of which human rights are massively violated. [12]


Bahrmann, Hannes (2018): Venezuela. The failed revolution, Berlin: Ch. Links Verlag.

Boeckh, Andreas / Welsch, Friedrich / Werz, Nikolaus (eds.) (2011): Venezuela today. Politics - Economy - Culture, Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert Verlag.

Maihold, Günther (2018): Colombia's Peace and Venezuela's Crisis. How a regional crisis landscape is developing in South America, SWP Comments 13, February 2018.

Werz, Nikolaus (2007): Hugo Chávez and the "Socialism of the 21st Century". An interim report, Ibero-Analyzes, Issue 21, December 2007, Berlin: Ibero-American Institute.

Zilla, Claudia / Keseberg, David (2019) Venezuela: Human Rights in a State of Emergency, in: Zeitschrift für Menschenrechte - Journal for Human Rights, Volume 13, 2019, No. 2, Frankfurt a.M .: Wochenschau Verlag, pp 38-56.

Zilla, Claudia (2019): Venezuela, the region and the world. Stations for a possible way out of the crisis, SWP-Aktuell 2019 / A 14, March 2019.

Zilla, Claudia (2017): Mobilization and System Blockade. The risk of a massive outbreak of violence is growing in Venezuela, SWP-Aktuell 2017 / A 29, May 2017.

Zilla, Claudia (2016): Temporary Power in Latin America. On the re-election and removal of presidents, SWP-Aktuell 2016 / A 15, March 2016.

Zilla, Claudia (2014): Chronicle of a foreseeable crisis. Outbreak of violence and Chavist hegemony in Venezuela, SWP-Aktuell 2014 / A 31, May 2014.


Current reports and analyzes on Venezuela from:

Human Rights Watch

International Crisis Group

ReliefWeb, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

United Nations, Humans Rights, Office of the High Commissioner, Venezuela