Over the past week, the people of Venezuela have once again demonstrated their determination to bring about the political change they seek in the much-anticipated but highly restricted primary election to choose an opposition candidate to run against the country’s socialist dictator, Nicolás Maduro. Maduro’s regime is the main cause of the constant hunger in and massive exodus from this once prosperous and democratic South American nation. Amid the many atrocities recently perpetrated by dictators and terrorists around the world, Venezuelans’ belief in and passion for democracy is truly encouraging.
María Corina Machado, the winner of the opposition primary, told her supporters at a rally last Sunday, “Today, we’ve unleashed a very powerful force. Today, we’ve shown ourselves what we’re capable of doing.”
In a social media post, the courageous Machado added, “This is not the end, but it is the beginning of the end.” However, all stakeholders in the long-sought political change in this South American country must understand that the most important thing right now is to ensure that this does not turn out to be the end of the beginning.
Already, the Maduro regime has dismissed the primary vote as illegal, and prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the organizers on charges including fraud and usurping authority. This is not surprising. Maduro has a track record of disrespecting the democratic process and persecuting dissidents, especially his political rivals. His regime officially banned Machado, a former member of the National Assembly and longtime critic of Maduro, from holding public office.
Some may think that this time might be different because Maduro has made a deal with the United States regarding Venezuela’s presidential election next year: Maduro has said he will allow democratic elections in exchange for Washington easing some of the sanctions it has imposed on the country’s oil and gold sales. It is a big gamble. The good news is that the United States is holding up the threat of renewed sanctions. But the first make-or-break test is looming – the credibility of the American threat would be undermined if it fails to pressure Maduro to lift the ban on Machado, the opposition’s chosen candidate, running against him.
As the case of China shows, the Maduro regime will not allow more political freedom just because he and his cronies are given more international opportunities to make money. The lifting of American sanctions alone will have little effect. Much more must be done to accompany U.S. economic pressure.
After all, dictators never give up power easily. There are many tools in Maduro’s toolbox that he can and will readily use to stay in power. To pave the way for significant political change in Venezuela, one must first understand the factors that keep Maduro in office – including the role of China.
Access to oil and the loyalty of the Venezuelan military contribute to the country’s political status quo. However, there is another factor that should not be overlooked: the lifeline support Maduro receives from other autocratic regimes, including China, Russia, and Iran. In fact, selling oil and gold, maintaining military support, manipulating social media with fake news and censorship, using sophisticated methods of internal repression, and avoiding international isolation are only possible because of the support Maduro receives from other autocratic states. These friendly regimes provide funding, technology, military supplies, and know-how, all of which are ruthlessly deployed against those fighting for human rights, democracy, and freedom in Venezuela.
Hugo Chávez began to prioritize diversification away from Venezuela’s economic reliance on the United States in the early 2000s. Given China’s abundant capital and its foreign policy goal of securing access to oil and building a Latin American bulwark against the U.S., it was the most expedient commercial route for diversifying oil markets and geostrategic patronage. Venezuela soon rose to become China’s fourth largest source of oil imports.
Chinese financing helped Chávez to expand Venezuela’s economic reach beyond oil and mining into the private sector, significantly strengthening the Chávez regime. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an American think tank, in the decade leading up to U.S. sanctions in 2019, China provided Venezuela with $62 billion in loans for more than 600 investment projects. This represented 53 percent of China’s total loans to Latin America at the time.
In addition, technologies that enable repression are widely shared among autocratic regimes. The Chinese Communist Party has been a pioneer in this area of social control, using national digital ID cards to track its citizens, as well as advanced fingerprint authentication and facial recognition. In 2008, Chávez dispatched Justice Ministry officials to the Chinese technology hub of Shenzhen to learn about China’s online censorship and suppression techniques.
Today, every Venezuelan citizen is issued a Homeland Card – an ID card with a unique QR code that contains their identity, biographical information, and participation in social programs. As noted in a 2018 Wilson Center report, “Food, Technology, and Authoritarianism in Venezuela’s Elections,” these QR codes have now been in use for over a decade, functioning as a social control tool to unfairly influence elections. This high-tech intelligence capability has become critical to the regime’s survival.
In September 2023, Maduro made his fifth state visit to China. The visit elevated China-Venezuela relations to an all-weather strategic partnership, a status held by just two other countries (Pakistan and Ethiopia). The two nations signed a package of cooperation agreements covering activities ranging from oil production to space exploration.
There is reason to believe that the greatly enhanced relationship between Venezuela and China has provided important strategic support to Maduro, emboldening him to return to his country with a high degree of confidence. In direct negotiations with Washington, the United States took a gamble by signing deals with Maduro that he may not be fully committed to enforcing.
The example of China shows that the multinational network of autocratic regimes makes sanctions-based strategies less effective. The West must restructure sanctions to take into account the overall geostrategic competition with the multinational network of autocratic regimes. At a tactical level, even for the sake of the upcoming Venezuelan election, decisions to impose or lift sanctions must be aimed at cracking the regime and splitting the elite from the Maduro clique. Instead of “blanket” sanctions that broadly target Venezuela’s economic assets, they should target the companies, individuals, and kleptocratic networks that directly enable Maduro’s rule.
It is imperative that democracies, including both government agencies and NGOs, engage directly with Venezuela’s opposition through democracy activists abroad; help unite the opposition with moral, financial, and technological support; and coordinate internal and external pressure against the Maduro regime. The world’s democracies should support an alliance of democracy defenders from dictatorial nation-states as one of the most important strategies to counter and contest the multi-state autocratic network and facilitate mutual support for their struggles.
Further, it is important not to view autocrats through an ideological lens. The real issue isn’t liberalism versus conservatism, or left versus right, but rather autocracy versus democracy. Autocrats are united less by ideology than by greed and lust for power. This is why Iranian theocrats, Chinese communists, and Russian nationalists have embraced each other in a flexible and ideologically irrational alliance. The United States and other democracies, whether on the political left or right, must not allow the struggle of the Venezuelan people to become entangled in the ideological polarization of their own politics.
The Maduro regime goes to great lengths to restrict outside information to prevent any challenge to the regime’s official narrative. Dictatorships are much harder to maintain with a well-informed populace. Restrictions on the free flow of information constitute an enormous challenge for Venezuelan democracy advocates. To mobilize large numbers of citizens for demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience, and especially to turn out people to vote in the upcoming general election, opposition leaders need uncensored and far-reaching methods of communication that can circumvent the Maduro regime’s control.
Access to affordable and uncensored online access should be a priority. For example, it is vital that technologies like Starlink be made available to the people of Venezuela. A program to distribute affordable smartphones would also be a practical way to empower ordinary Venezuelan people. Not only would it help improve communication, facilitate organization, and combat misinformation, but it would also ensure access to services that could be provided directly.
In Spanish, “maduro” means ripe. Nicolás Maduro can be likened to a ripe, poisonous fruit for the great nation of Venezuela. Just as all ripe fruit inevitably falls to the ground if not picked, so too will Maduro falter and fall because, given a free choice, no Venezuelan patriot with a sense of moral duty will choose him in the upcoming election. Now is the time for democracy fighters, both inside and outside Venezuela, state and non-state actors, to join forces to make such a free choice a reality.