Apr 8, 2020 - World

Venezuelan regime looks to China as coronavirus crisis approaches

Illustration of hand giving a star to an outreached hand.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

In the depths of an economic crisis, with few well-equipped hospitals and spotty access to running water and electricity in some places, Venezuela will struggle to cope with its coronavirus outbreak without international aid.

Why it matters: While the U.S. is attempting to oust Nicolás Maduro's government, and most in the region and around the world treat Maduro as a pariah, China is extending a helping hand. The Venezuelan opposition, meanwhile, fears Maduro will use the crisis to enhance his international legitimacy.

"If we don’t have clear accountability and transparency to know where the money goes, we can’t accept that the regime administers this money."
— Manuel Avendaño, director of international relations for the Juan Guaidó opposition government, in an interview with Axios

The backstory: The U.S. and dozens of other countries recognized National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful interim leader in early 2019, after Maduro claimed victory in a disputed election.

  • Guaidó’s push for the presidency sputtered over the course of 2019, and Maduro remains in the presidential palace despite crushing U.S. sanctions and, more recently, drug trafficking charges.
  • China, Russia and Cuba continue to help prop up his government.
  • Beijing, meanwhile, has also attempted to marginalize Guaidó internationally. In 2019, China's refusal to grant Guaidó’s representative a visa to attend the Inter-American Development Bank’s annual meeting in Chengdu resulted in its cancellation.

The power struggle in Caracas has imbued desperately needed humanitarian efforts with political significance.

  • The U.S. has offered aid but refused to work directly with Maduro’s government or loosen sanctions that could make medical supplies harder to obtain.
  • The International Monetary Fund, meanwhile, rejected Maduro’s request for $5 billion to deal with the crisis on the basis that he lacks international recognition.

That has left Caracas leaning more heavily on Beijing than ever before.

  • China has sent supplies and is in talks about providing financial relief to Venezuela, which is behind on payments on a massive loan granted by China in 2010.
  • Chinese officials also haven't been afraid to use harsh rhetoric to keep the Maduro government in line. In a strident March 18 Twitter thread, the Chinese Embassy in Caracas criticized unnamed Venezuelan officials for referring to the coronavirus as the "Chinese" or "Wuhan" virus, ending the thread by saying these officials should "put on a face mask and shut up."

The big picture: “This circumstance is a great opportunity for China to enhance their role as a great power, supporting other countries in times of the coronavirus, and to try to step more into helping Maduro than before," said one official in the Guaidó government who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

What to watch: The Guaidó government fears the Maduro government is trying to exploit the crisis to gain diplomatic recognition from more countries.

  • "When they sent the request to the European Union, they tried to get recognition from the European Union, instead of the Juan Guaidó government," said Manuel Avendaño, director of international relations for Guaidó's government, in an interview with Axios. He said that Caracas has tried the same tack with other governments as well.
  • "The money that comes to help people in Venezuela should be administered by NGOs, public health professionals, the WHO, the Inter-American development bank, and the Organization of American States," said Avendaño.
  • Otherwise, he says, it will disappear into the pockets of corrupt officials.

This story originally appeared in the Axios China newsletter.

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