Tired of regional critics, Venezuela looks to Russia and China

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at the closing ceremony of the XVI Political Council of the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas (ALBA) at the Convention Palace in Havana, on Dec 14, 2017.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at the closing ceremony of the XVI Political Council of the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas (ALBA) at the Convention Palace in Havana, on Dec 14, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO (NYTimes) - Venezuela, which a decade ago aspired to be the axis of a new, left-leaning diplomatic and trade alliance in the Americas, is finding itself increasingly isolated in the hemisphere.

Venezuela downgraded diplomatic relations with Canada and Brazil in recent days, after a war of words over the Venezuelan government's decision last week to ban three influential opposition parties from running candidates in next year's presidential election.

As its leftist president, Nicolás Maduro, is increasingly regarded as a despot among neighbours in a region that has shifted politically to the right, Venezuela, once the richest country in South America but now in need of cash, is drawing closer - and becoming more dependent on - Russia and China.

With its oil, Venezuela is likely to be an attractive, if risky, long-term gamble for Moscow and Beijing, which have sought in recent years to assert greater influence in a region that Washington has long regarded as its backyard.

"Marginalizing the Venezuelan kleptocracy is important, but total isolation will cede the ability of regional leaders to shape political events on the ground to actors outside the region," said Juan Gonzalez, a former White House and State Department official in the Obama administration who worked on Latin America policy. "Russia's increased role is particularly concerning, given their proven interference in the 2016 US election and apparent design to disrupt regional politics."

The disputes with Canada and Brazil occurred as Venezuela also took aim at Todd D. Robinson, Washington's new top diplomat in Caracas, Venezuela's capital. Robinson said in an introductory video posted online that he would "look for opportunities to help bring back democracy and prosperity" to Venezuela.

Last Thursday, Delcy Rodríguez, the president of Venezuela's national Constituent Assembly, chided Robinson, saying he had "arrived to our country on the wrong foot!"

Then, over the weekend, Rodríguez, Venezuela's former foreign minister, announced that the top diplomats from Canada and Brazil had been designated persona non grata.

The announcement followed the two countries' criticism last week of the Maduro government's decision to prevent opposition parties from competing in next year's election.