Brazil and Venezuela’s unpopular leaders remain friends – for now

In it together. EPA/Fernando Bizzerra Jr

When a delegation of Brazilian senators arrived in Venezuela recently to visit Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, two Venezuelan leaders who are being held as political prisoners, they soon ran into trouble. When the senators tried to leave the airport, they themselves were held captive; their minibus was stopped and violently attacked by a mob, shouting “Chávez is not dead, he has multiplied!” Security forces at the airport allowed the attack to continue, even though the senators were high-level foreign visitors.

This was no spontaneous mob, as revealed by a Venezuelan national guard officer interviewed by the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo. Instead, the officer said the Venezuelan government recruited supporters to attack the Brazilian senators and prevent them from visiting the prisoners. Forced back into the airport, the senators had to fly back to Brazil the same day without being able to visit the political prisoners.

“We were under siege and unable to fulfil the purpose of our mission”, said Aécio Neves, a Brazilian opposition senator who leads the foreign relations committee. He condemned the attack as a diplomatic incident and called on Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff to take action.

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López has been detained for over a year in a military prison since the 2014 anti-government protests. Meanwhile, although he was democratically elected as mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma was summarily sacked from office and arrested without charge in February 2015.

The last time a foreign politician’s vehicle was surrounded by angry demonstrators in Caracas was in 1958. US vice-president Richard Nixon’s car was attacked because of US support for the military dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who had just been overthrown. President Eisenhower responded by dispatching troops to the Caribbean.

Nixon’s fracas in Caracas.

But even though the Brazilian delegation was attacked, Brazil’s president has yet to publicly condemn the incident – and the senators said the Brazilian embassy in Caracas failed to provide them with necessary assistance. That shows just how dependent on each other Caracas and Brasilia have become.

Partnering up

Given the increasingly strained relationship between Venezuela and the US, Brazil has become Venezuela’s major political partner in the region. Just a week before the Brazilian senators’ trip, President Dilma Rousseff hosted Diosdado Cabello, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s right-hand man.

Although the US remains Venezuela’s largest trading partner due to oil (which accounts for 95% of Venezuela’s export earnings), Brazil has built up a $6 billion trade surplus with Venezuela. Brazil has become a key provider of food and medicine to Venezuela, and this trade has ballooned since Venezuela joined the Mercosur trade bloc in 2012.

Standing up for Latin America. EPA/Miguel Gutierrez

The increasingly dire shortage of basic goods in Venezuela has made the country ever more dependent on Brazilian imports. Despite complaints by Brazilian companies about payment difficulties, Venezuela remains a crucial market, and Brazilian multinationals have gained a serious commercial advantage there.

Trade liberalisation alone doesn’t account for the two governments’ closeness. Even before Venezuela joined Mercosur, Hugo Chávez enjoyed a close relationship with Brazilian President Lula da Silva, and both leaders’ parties have remained in power for over a decade.

Plummeting popularity

The situation in Venezuela also has domestic ramifications for Rousseff. When Chávez came to power in 1999, his government heralded a new wave of left-wing governments in Latin America, including Brazil’s in 2003.

But Brazil’s leftist dream is running out of steam. Rousseff’s popularity has crashed to a record low of 10%, driven by widespread discontent over the slowdown in the Brazilian economy and a massive corruption scandal in state oil company Petrobras (where she served as president). Faced with calls for impeachment, Rousseff may be reluctant to alienate her left wing base.

Testify. EPA/Stephanie Lecocq

It might be expected that Rousseff would stand up for political prisoners such as Leopoldo López, as she herself was imprisoned and tortured by Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. Instead, her silence suggests that she puts solidarity with leftist political causes above the plight of political prisoners.

Just as Rousseff’s approval ratings have suffered thanks to Brazil’s economic malaise, Venezuela’s economic collapse has likewise decimated Maduro’s popularity, which is hovering in the 20s. With supermarket shelves empty and violence soaring, Chávez’s once-popular political party has been splintering into factions.

The Brazilian senators’ visit gave Maduro’s government a timely nationalist card to play. Like Chávez, Maduro has characterised international and domestic criticism of Venezuela’s human rights record as “golpista” (coup-plotting) and interventionism. In much the same way, his government blithely dismissed a declaration of concern by 25 foreign leaders ahead of the Summit of the Americas in April 2015.

After the assault, the Brazilian senators asked their government to exclude Venezuela from Mercosur under the trade pact’s democratic clause. Venezuela has rejected oversight by core international mechanisms, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, by decrying them as US-dominated cartels. But Mercosur as an altogether different opponent, since its members are all South American and Brazil its dominant player.

From words to action

Five weeks before the Brazilian senators’ futile attempt to visit him, López went on hunger strike, demanding (among other things) that Maduro’s government set a date for the 2015 parliamentary elections – something it has so far refused to do.

On June 22, Venezuelan authorities finally announced that the country’s next election will be held on December 6, despite Maduro’s record-low popularity. Two days later, López ended his hunger strike. Nonetheless, the government ruled out opposition demands for election monitoring by the OAS and EU, and said it would only allow monitoring by Unasur – a regional body animated by Hugo Chávez, and one that includes Brazil.

The months leading up to Venezuela’s parliamentary election will not be smooth sailing for Maduro or Rousseff. Brazil has long been seeking a more prominent role on the world’s stage, including a seat on the UN Security Council, but it is still not clear whether Brazil will act as the global leader it wants to be and do what it takes to help restore democracy and human rights in Venezuela.

Rousseff has made her moral position clear: in 2010, she remarked that

Due to the fact that I experienced personally the situation of a political prisoner, I have an historical commitment to all those that were or are prisoners just because they expressed their views, their public opinion, their own opinions.

If she’s to honour that, she needs to publicly urge Venezuela to release López and Ledezma – and charting a political course that doesn’t tie her country to Latin America’s most volatile state.