Venezuela continued its chaotic descent toward total collapse on Monday. Venezuelan officials said the country's armed forces detained a group of soldiers who stole weapons and kidnapped several officials in a brief military revolt against Nicolás Maduro, a tyrant who was sworn in to a second term as president earlier this month following an illegitimate election. Videos posted online showed the soldiers demanding the removal of Maduro and calling on their fellow countrymen to join the uprising. The incident triggered violent protests in the streets of Caracas, the capital.
The next day, Vice President Mike Pence called Maduro a "dictator with no legitimate claim to power," encouraged those protesting against him, and said the United States recognizes the democratically elected, opposition-controlled National Assembly as Venezuela's only valid governing institution.
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Washington has called on Maduro to cede power to the National Assembly, until new elections are held to restore democracy.
The events of this week continue several crises in Venezuela that have ravaged the country. Venezuela's inflation and unemployment rates are astronomically high and only rising. Most hospitals are unable to provide basic services to a population that mostly lives in poverty and struggles to feed itself. Violent crime is everywhere. Millions of Venezuelans are consequently fleeing the country. Maduro's regime has responded to this dark situation, which he created through authoritarian rule and failed socialist policies, by imprisoning, torturing, and killing dissenters who oppose him.
In this environment, and with so much opposition both inside Venezuela and abroad, how has Maduro managed to stay in power? Brutal oppression is of course one reason. Another reason that has received less attention but has broader implications is support from China, which has been a steadfast backer of Maduro's regime.
China has a clear goal of bolstering Maduro. Indeed, Beijing has provided significant economic support to Venezuela, including billions of dollars in loans to keep afloat the cash-strapped country. Moreover, the Chinese have provided political support. Maduro traveled to China for a state visit in September, just months after his fraudulent reelection, which dozens of countries correctly identified as a sham.
"This visit by President Maduro is beneficial to both sides' mutual trust, to push forward cooperation, to expand ties between the two countries and to promote Venezuela's development," a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry said at the time. "I think that a Venezuela that is steadily developing is in everyone's interests."
The Chinese spokesman even praised Maduro's economic policies, adding that the Venezuelan people were responding favorably to the government's actions. "Recently, the Venezuelan president has actively pushed forward economic reforms, and there has been a positive reaction to these from society," he said.
In an opinion piece for a Chinese state-run newspaper, the head of the Foreign Ministry's Latin American affairs department wrote that "Venezuela is China's important partner in Latin America," adding, "China has firmly upheld moral values and in a stable way pushed forward cooperation in all areas as Venezuela's development is facing difficulties, and has firmly opposed any wrong practices of isolation, sanctions, and intimidation."
Beyond political and economic support, Chinese telecom giant ZTE Corp is also helping Venezuela replicate China's dystopian surveillance state to ensure total government control over society.
China has various reasons for supporting Maduro. Commercial interests are the obvious place to start. Venezuela has, according to one estimate, gold reserves with a commercial value of more than $200 billion, in addition to similar values of Coltan and iron. Venezuela also has the world's largest crude oil reserves, although its production has plummeted amid the drop in global oil prices and the country's economic collapse.
China is investing in the developing world around the globe, looking to satiate its unquestionable thirst for minerals and other materials that it needs at home.
Economics are only the first level, however. The real trouble is when China uses its economic leverage to curry political favor from less wealthy countries. It is a way of entrenching its influence, gaining political and diplomatic power in addition to the financial benefits.
Another reason for China's support: China, like Venezuela, is an authoritarian state that fears the spread of Western values such as democracy and human rights. Autocrats want to stay in power above all else, and both Beijing and Caracas see the United States working to subvert their legitimacy and political systems. For China, Maduro's ouster would be a defeat for their oppressive alternative to Western democracy and capitalism.
Here we get to the most important reason for China's support: undermining the United States. It is no coincidence that China is supporting a regime hostile to the U.S. in a country only three hours from Miami by plane, nor that Beijing acts more boldly in the western hemisphere when tensions with Washington are particularly high. China has made clear through its words and actions, from its Belt and Road initiative to its island-building in the South China Sea, that it wants to supplant the United States as the center of power in international affairs. That is the bigger picture of China's support for Maduro, and that is what Washington cannot forget.