Foreign policy and defense
Venezuela is a nation in South America. Its capital city is Caracas. Venezuela’s foreign policy changed radically after Hugo Chávez took office as president in 1999. Relations were strained with the United States and several Latin American countries, but new alliances were created instead. The increasingly acute crisis in the country has now led to a cold war-like situation where the US no longer recognizes the incumbent government, while Russia and China take it in defense.
Since the beginning of 2019, the Venezuelan social government has come into direct collision course with large parts of the outside world, while a power struggle is taking place in the country (see Current policy).
- Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Venezuela for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
For several years, the political and socio-economic crisis in Venezuela has created instability throughout the region due to refugee flows, epidemics, outbreaks of violence, corruption, drug trafficking and other lawlessness (see also Social conditions). In 2017, a number of Latin American countries and Canada formed the so-called Lime Group, to try to deal with the crisis. In early 2018, the Lime Group explicitly called on the government to postpone the presidential election in May, citing the lack of conditions for a free and fair election. When the elections were held, the group’s 14 countries temporarily called home their ambassadors from Caracas. The group includes all regional heavyweights: Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Peru. Mexico, where a left-wing president took office at the end of 2018, has been more cautious during the tapered crisis that occurred in 2019.
The support that Venezuela otherwise has in the region comes partly from left-wing regimes as in Cuba and partly from small states around the Caribbean that are dependent on oil supplies (see further below). Like Russia and China – Venezuela’s largest lenders – they strongly oppose what they call interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs.
The democratic collapse in Venezuela has also led to sanctions. In January 2019, they were targeted for the first time in the vital oil sector (see Calendar). They have been sharpened further and since August of the same year encompasses all Venezuela’s assets in the US (see Calendar). In September, the entire country’s top tier was banned from entering the United States: from Deputy Ministers and Colonels and upwards, as well as all members of the Constitutional Assembly, as well as their families.
But the United States imposed sanctions on some individuals as early as 2015, following the unrest the year before. From 2017, the United States and the EU and Canada tightened sanctions, which included, among other things, prohibitions on arms sales, entry bans and frozen assets for persons accused of civil and human rights violations. Restrictions were also introduced for companies that do business with the Venezuelan state. Among designated individuals are President Nicolás Maduro himself and, not least, Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who is accused of involvement in the drug trade. All eight judges in the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber have also been subject to sanctions.
Historically, relations with the United States have been central and the United States has remained the most important trading partner. But already the increasingly critical US-critical Chávez (President 1999-2013) instead cultivated contacts with countries that were far away from the US – such as China, Russia, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea and Belarus. President Maduro has long accused the United States of waging economic warfare against Venezuela and of wanting to overthrow his government.
Relations with the US deteriorated already after the coup against Chávez in 2002 (see Modern History). At that time, the United States provided financial support to Venezuelan opposition groups and many felt the coup was supported by the Washington government. The United States had long criticized Venezuela for lack of cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking and in 2006 imposed a ban on arms exports to the country. Venezuela has on several occasions expelled US diplomats accused of trying to “destabilize” the country. The two countries have not had ambassadors in each other’s countries since 2010.
In its efforts to counter US dominance, Venezuela and Cuba formed the Petrocaribe oil partnership. By offering cheap oil on favorable terms to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Venezuela gained political influence. Along with Cuba, the country also formed the leftist bloc Alba to promote economic solidarity, social equality and political integration between the region’s countries.
The state oil companies in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay cooperate within the organization Petrosur.
Venezuela has also been a leader in South American economic and cultural initiatives such as the regional bank Banco del Sur, thought to be an alternative to the World Bank, the regional oil company Petrosur and Telesur, a television network. Telesur began broadcasting from Caracas in 2005 and is thought to be a socialist Latin American counterweight to Spanish-language CNN. The Venezuelan state is the largest partner in Telesur, but four other Latin American countries own shares in the channel.
Venezuela is a member of the South American organization Unasur, which, however, is becoming increasingly overplayed. In 2012, Venezuela also became a member of Mercosur free trade cooperation, but in 2016 the country was shut down as it had not adapted its legislation to the organization’s rules. In the summer of 2017, the suspension was tightened to an “indefinite” period, when the other Mercosur countries criticized Venezuela for putting the democratic order out of play.
The relationship with the cooperative organization OAS has long been ambivalent and has now become hostile. Venezuela has often criticized the organization for being US-controlled. Criticism from OAS against Venezuela has sharpened sharply since Uruguayan Luis Almagro took over as secretary general in 2015. Almagro has explicitly stated that Venezuela is no longer a democracy and threatened to turn the country out of the organization. The criticism resulted in Caracas 2017 announcing its intention to leave the organization and since April 2019 OAS recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s representative. Already in 2013, the country left the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), an independent body within the OAS, as decided a year earlier.
In December 2011, at Chávez’s initiative, a new regional cooperation organization, Celac, was launched, which was intended as an alternative to OAS. Celac covers all Latin American and Caribbean countries but not the United States and Canada.
Relationship with Colombia
The relationship with Colombia has historically been strained and in recent years it has often been directly hostile. When a prominent Conservative president, Iván Duque, took office in neighboring country 2018, the relationship was again frozen. Colombia is one of the countries joining the US side in the 2019 crisis, and the Colombian government has accused Venezuela of offering Colombian rebels a sanctuary before the UN. Maduro, in turn, accuses Colombia of training “mercenaries and terrorists” to overthrow his own government. The diplomatic relations have been broken since February 2019.
A pure riot of arms occurred between Venezuela and Colombia in 2008-2010. Hugo Chávez then accused Colombia of being the United States lackey and condemned the neighboring country’s military cooperation with the United States in what is called the “war on drugs and terrorism”. Colombia’s then-President Álvaro Uribe (2002–2010), for his part, accused Venezuela of supporting Colombian leftist guerrilla Farc. Before the OAS and the UN, they accused each other of murder, kidnapping, espionage and a series of incidents along the border.
The diplomatic relations were broken on several occasions.
Relations temporarily improved when Manuel Santos took over as president of Colombia, but deteriorated again from 2014 when Maduro began to take steps to stop the smuggling of state-subsidized goods across the border. A serious crisis arose in the summer of 2015 when the border was closed in a couple of places and Colombians residing on the Venezuelan side border were forced away (see further Calendar).
Since ancient times, Venezuela has a number of unresolved border disputes with, among others, Colombia, Guyana and some island states in the Caribbean. The dispute with Colombia concerns the border crossing in the Gulf of Venezuela, where there may be rich oil deposits. The conflict with Guyana affects an area west of the Essequibo River. Venezuela claims that more than half of Guyana’s land area is actually Venezuelan. The dispute has gained new fuel since oil discoveries were discovered in the sea outside the disputed area. Guyana turned to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague in March 2018 on the matter, but President Maduro immediately dismissed all thoughts of a “legal solution”.
The so-called oil diplomacy is important for Venezuela’s contacts with the outside world. Several Latin American countries have formed close ties with Venezuela in exchange for cheap oil. Venezuela also has good cooperation with the oil exporting countries’ organization Opec in which the country is a member.
Venezuela’s armed forces mainly consist of conscripted soldiers. General military service applies to men and women between the ages of 18 and 60.
The military stayed out of politics for a long time, although there were personal ties between the military leadership and the old political parties. When Chávez became president, he appointed military men to a number of high positions and fears existed that Venezuela would once again become a military dictatorship. The coup against Chávez in 2002 showed that the military was divided: some commanders participated in the coup, others supported Chávez. After the coup, the president cleared political opponents from the military leadership.
During Chávez’s time in power, the military became increasingly politicized and it has continued under his successor Maduro. At the end of 2017, the president appointed a general to head the state oil company PDVSA.
Venezuela has bought a lot of weapons from Russia and the two countries’ defense has had joint exercises. Venezuela has been licensed to manufacture Russian weapons and Russian ammunition. The motive was said to discourage the United States from invading Venezuela.
FACTS – DEFENSE
Army: 63 000 men (2017)
The air Force: 11 500 men (2017)
The fleet: 25,500 men (2017)
Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 0.5 percent (2017)
Military spending’s share of the state budget: 1.5 percent (2017)