The Venezuela government has been using Chinese-made weapons in its crackdown on political protests that have engulfed the Latin American country in recent weeks.
According to Jane’s, at least two Chinese-made systems have been deployed against protesters in Venezuela. The first of these is the Norinco VN-4 armored vehicle that is being used by the Bolivarian National Guard (Venezuela’s National Guard). Reports from March 2013 said that Venezuela purchased 141 VN-4s from China in January of that year, and that the armored vehicle is “especially designed to be used by fast reaction forces, armored troops, police force[s] or also for peacekeeping and anti-terrorism missions.” The Jane’s report stated that “The VN-4 is a 4×4 9-ton armored vehicle that can carry up to eight personnel and is armed with a light machine gun.” It also noted that some of the vehicles may be equipped with video surveillance systems.
The Jane’s report went on to say that protesters had posted photos on Twitter that they claimed showed Cuban Special Forces disembarking from Shaanxi Y-8C transport aircraft. There have been widespread reports that Cuban forces are assisting Nicolás Maduro’s government to combat the unrest, although Venezuelan officials have denied this.
In 2010, Venezuelan officials expressed interest in purchasing 10 to 12 medium-range Shaanxi Y-8 transport aircraft, shortly after taking delivery of 18 K-8 training aircraft it had previously purchased from China. Ultimately, after a year of negotiations, Venezuela decided to purchase only 8 Y-8s for $353 million (according to former President Hugo Chavez).
At the time, Venezuelan state media reported that: “The Y-8 is a medium-size, mid-range transport aircraft with a capacity for carrying 88 passengers and 20 tons of cargo during 7.3 hours of autonomous, uninterrupted flight.” It is based on the Soviet Antonov An-12 tactical transport plane, and made its maiden flight in 1975. Since 1987, China has been promoting the export of the Y-8, and has inked deals to send the aircraft to countries like Sri Lanka, Sudan, Burma, Iran, Egypt, and Tanzania.
Previously, the Venezuelan Air Force had relied on the U.S.-made C-130 transport plane for its needs, but turned to China after the U.S. imposed an arms embargo against Caracas in 2006 over its support for Cuba and Iran. As part of this arms ban, the U.S. refused to supply Venezuela with spare parts for the C-130s.
Since taking possession of the Y-8s, Venezuela has put them to good use such as making a bizarre stopover flight in Malta in November 2013. This stopover flight was highly publicized for maximum impact.
China and Venezuela began deepening relations during the decade-long tenure of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez. The backbone of the relationship is Venezuelan oil exports to China, and Beijing’s investment in Venezuela. As The Diplomat has noted, as much of a third of China Development Bank’s overseas lending has gone to the Latin American country.
Although China’s relations with Venezuela were seen as highly reliant on a personal relationship to Chavez, they have continued largely uninterrupted since his death in 2013. Maduro visited Beijing in September of last year, which coincided with China agreeing to invest some $28 billion in Venezuela’s embattled oil industry. Beijing also authorized an additional $5 billion loan to Caracas during Maduro’s visit, which is likely to be paid back in oil, if at all.
Venezuela has been wracked with large-scale protests in major cities since early February of this year, after already experiencing a more limited period of unrest in early January. The protests at times have turned violent, with 18 people reportedly killed in nearly one month of unrest.
Venezuela has naturally blamed the unrest on the United States, and expelled three American diplomats last month for inciting the protests.
The actual causes of the protests are largely structural however, particularly the growing economic woes of the country and the excessively high crime rate. The country is experiencing a cash flow problem as well as extremely high inflation, which is complicating its ability to import goods. Scarcity has consequently become a common issue throughout Venezuela, including in such vital goods as food.
The unrest was largely predictable. Indeed, James Parker wrote on The Diplomat in October of last year: “Venezuela is going to need such Chinese [financial] help as much as ever over the coming months and years, as the troubled Latin-American country faces up to years of populist economic mismanagement, which may have made Chavez a hero to his people, but threaten to be much less kind to the current and any future government as they are handed the bill. Problems include a looming currency crisis, stagnating production at the vital yet mismanaged government petroleum company PDVSA (which has been used to back populist social spending), massive inflation and mounting corruption problems that are complicating efforts to clean things up.”
Nonetheless, Maduro’s government is expected to survive, and therefore China has continued to support the regime. Although Beijing has in general sought to avoid drawing attention to the situation in Venezuela, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson confirmed last month that “Venezuela is not only an important country in Latin America, but also a friend and important cooperative partner to China.” State media in China also said that Beijing believed “Venezuela’s government and people have the ability to handle internal affairs, protect national stability and promote social development.” The same report further emphasized that government supporters in Venezuela had taken to the streets to demand a harsher crackdown on the anti-government protesters over their alleged role in precipitating the violence.
Then, last week China hosted a senior Venezuelan official in Beijing, where the two sides agreed to “cement the strategic partnership.”