“We must make ourselves relevant so that other countries have an interest in our continued survival and prosperity as a sovereign and independent nation” - Lee Kuan Yew
Through broad brushstrokes, this article seeks to understand changing East-West political negotiations and geo-political power dynamics through the ongoing Venezuelan crisis in South America and the 2018 “coup” in the South Asian island of Sri Lanka.
Venezuela became an independent country in 1830 following Spanish colonization from the 16th century. Since the first discoveries of oil were made in the Maracaibo basin, it has been the driving force behind Venezuela's political and economic affairs.
Venezuela's primary geopolitical challenge is managing its relations with the United States- the regional hegemon. The US is the largest military power in the region, but also the largest consumer market and a key destination for Venezuelan crude oil exports. According to Amy Chua in Political Tribes she explains that white Venezuelans of European descent were an example of a market-dominant minority who were sidelined when Hugo Chavez, a representative of the country’s darker-skinned majority, took power. The former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was seen as a misfit in the Western world order. Chavez built his domestic and foreign policies around the rejection of the hegemonic sphere of influence of the US while reaching out to the rising Asian global power China, and establishing closer links with Russia.
The Asianisation of Latin America is seen to sway to strong geopolitical influences from China. China is targeting $500b in trade and $250b in investment between 2015-2019. It threatens the once subservient nation to US hegemony since the 19th century Monroe Doctrine.
In a comparative analysis to the island of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s primary geographic challenge is managing geopolitical relations with India -the regional hegemon, who is well aligned with the USA. Just like in Venezuela, the former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa seen as a misfit in the Western world order. Rajapaksa aligned his foreign policy with China, opening the floodgates to Chinese strategic relations, letting China set its geopolitical footprint upon the nation.
The Sri Lankan polity experienced a constitutional crisis a few months ago. Sources connect the political fiasco to external geopolitical influences in the country. Venezuela was soon to follow in South America, facing a similar fate. This trend could follow to many other nations where the US is slowly losing grip as the sole global super power. Sri Lanka could also revisit this same situation in the coming months and perhaps in the next Presidential election.
One cannot ignore the geopolitical influences from external powers. Such influence pushed to bring back Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe and remove Rajapaksa out of office after a short stint, as he was seen as the illegitimate Prime Minister by the West. The nation had two Prime Ministers from October 26th, 2018. One accepted by US and the Western allies and another accepted by China.
In the same way, Venezuela presently faces the geopolitics of external powers. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was declared illegitimate by the US and its Western allies after his second term election in which he gained 67.8% . This win is widely viewed as rigged, while an interim President Juan Guaidó, declared himself as the legitimate leader. Mr. Guaidó argues that, as the president of the National Assembly, an opposition-controlled legislative body, he has the constitutional authority to assume power because Mr. Maduro had taken office illegally. According to Bloomberg Columnist Noah Feldman “the constitutional argument that Maduro isn’t really President is nothing more than a fig leaf for regime change. Even as fig leaves go, it’s particularly wispy and minimal. The U.S. policy is, in practice, to seek regime change in Venezuela. It would be better to say so directly.”
In the same way, in the island, PM Wickramasinghe accused Rajapaksa calling his appointment unconstitutional and illegitimate. Not having the parliament majority support and the process of appointment by President Sirisena was seen illegitimate.
Back in Venezuela, President Maduro is supported and accepted by Chinese and the Russian Governments. While the tense situation unfolds, President Maduro is consciously escalating the diplomatic tension. He announced the complete diplomatic shutdown with the US Government giving a 72-hour time period for the US diplomats to leave Venezuela.
While one President calls for a diplomatic shutdown of the US within the nation, the interim president- President Guaidó has invited the United States to stay. The State Department has said it will not heed the order to leave the country. It accepts the interim President’s request and rejects Maduro’s order.
At home, in a similar manner, Rajapaksa was rejected by the West with a strong voice from US.. His cabinet was seen illegitimate while appealing to the judiciary to restore democracy. Sri Lanka is today at a crossroads. It is deeply polarized. This divide will further rear its head in the upcoming election.
In Venezuela, the Trump administration pressed its case with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on all countries in the Organization of American States (OAS) to reject Maduro and “align themselves with democracy,” calling the administration “illegitimate and invalid”. Pompeo, in his address to the 35-member OAS said “His (Maduro’s) regime is morally bankrupt, it’s economically incompetent and it is profoundly corrupt. It is undemocratic to the core,”.
A few days after this statement three European Union nations Germany, France and Spain were ready to recognize Juan Guaido as Venezuela's interim president if elections were not called within eight days in a threat to Venezuelan regime. The trade sanctions from US will follow and isolation from the Western allies will be unfolding over the next several days.
The trade sanctions echo the manner in which the EU was ready to withdraw its GSP plus and sanctions to follow in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan military was not involved in the constitutional crisis, the scenario in Venezuela will be different as the military has already taken President Maduro’s side and supports his Presidency.
Just like Sri Lanka is playing a pivotal role in the Chinese ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and its close diplomatic and defence relations with Russia, Venezuelan regime from Hugo Chavez to Maduro has invested heavily in China and Russian relations which is a direct threat to the regional hegemon, the USA.
Venezuela has also been one of the largest markets for Russian arms exports in Latin America and has signed 30 contracts worth $11 billion from 2005 to 2013, according to the Russian news agency Tass. In December, Russia dispatched a small group of aircraft to Venezuela in a show of solidarity with Mr. Maduro’s Government. Two Tu-160 nuclear-capable bombers flew more than 6,000 miles in this exercise. Overall it has given Venezuela more than $10 billion in financial assistance in recent years. In exchange, Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, has acquired stakes in Venezuela’s energy sector. Venezuela’s crisis has made it more vulnerable than ever not only due to Russian influence but more towards the Chinese influence which has put U.S. economic, security, and diplomatic interests at risk.
From Maduro’s last state visit to China requesting for more loans from China, China’s loans to Venezuela have grown to $65 billion. However, the Venezuelan economy has staggered in perhaps the same way as the Sri Lankan economy. In the same way, Sri Lankan leaders have obtained and are seeking more loans from China. These are seen by the West as predatory and debt trap loans.
A few days ago, Sri Lanka celebrated her 71st year of independence from British colonial rule. Even after 71 years, policy makers have failed to realize promises of economic prosperity. What we have today is a broken down nation with less than 4% growth. Three top ratings agencies Fitch, Standard & Poor’s, and Moody’s Investor Services have downgraded Sri Lanka raising the cost of international borrowing. Fitch has moved Sri Lanka from B+ to B, which leaves it just four notches above default status.
The nation is turning to China and India for financial support as a balance of payment crisis looms over the debt-strapped island. According to Indrajit Coomaraswamy Governor Central Bank of Sri Lanka, both India and the China are considering plans to scale up their respective offers to $1 billion each. He says , “Sri Lanka’s friends, the two regional giants, have stepped up to support us in this time when we were pushed into a rather difficult corner,”.
Power transitions from West to East only prove that it is imperative to calculate external geopolitical interference toward Sri Lanka. Lankan leadership needs to include this discussion in political discourse.
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the director general of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense. Author of Sri Lanka at Crossroads(2019).The views expressed here are his own.