The United States is pressing Latin American leaders to deliver a message to China: Beijing is damaging its image in the Western Hemisphere and putting billions of its investment at risk by propping up Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.
According to diplomats and sources familiar with the discussions between Trump’s national security team and Latin American leaders, China has become a key part of the U.S.-supported international pressure campaign to isolate Maduro and remove him from Venezuela.
Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, Mauricio Claver-Carone, and other senior officials have delivered the message to regional ambassadors and mission chiefs in the last couple weeks, including over coffee and breakfast at the Chilean embassy and at lunch at the Colombian embassy, sources said.
“They use us to send the message,” said one diplomat from the region who was not authorized to speak publicly about the strategy.
The Trump administration said no one should be shocked that top officials are holding these conversations with regional allies and other leaders of the 54 nations who have recognized Juan Guaidó as the only legitimate democratically elected leader of Venezuela.
“Venezuela’s friends are working together to find pressure points of the countries still clinging to Maduro as president of Venezuela in order to change their mind,” a senior administration official said. “That shouldn’t surprise anyone that we’re having those conversations.”
The Chinese, along with the Russians, have invested tens of billions of dollars in Venezuela, helping keep the once oil-rich nation afloat during an economic and humanitarian crisis that has forced more than three million people to flee. In return, they have received cheap oil and a foothold in the United States’ sphere of influence.
In a sign of how tightly China remains wedded to Maduro, the Asian superpower faced off against the United States and allies when China joined Russia late last month to veto a U.S. resolution at the United Nations Security Council calling for new Venezuelan elections and access to humanitarian aid.
“The message we have for China is they’re more likely to get a return on their investments if Venezuela is stable, if Venezuela is prosperous, and if Venezuela has a positive future ahead of it,” the senior administration official said.
Chinese leaders have met in Washington with leaders of the Guaidó team, reflecting a willingness to at least hear out the new leaders and gauge their ability to cover Venezuela’s debts should they take over.
“I don’t think the ask is for China to abandon Maduro or Venezuela,” said Fernando Cutz, who served as senior director at the National Security Council in the Trump administration until last year. “I think the ask is just for them to be open minded to a new team that is respecting them and their investments. Not to basically get in the way of said new team.”
The Trump administration’s portfolio on China is already stretched thin as top U.S. trade officials scramble to work out an agreement that stops Chinese currency manipulation, protects U.S. intellectual property and ends a sanction battle that has stressed farm and factory workers across the midwest.
John Feeley, who served as ambassador in Panama until last year, has called for the administration to make Venezuela a part of the trade talks. He was encouraged by the administration’s engagement of Latin American leaders.
“It’s good, old-fashioned diplomacy 101,” said Feeley, a career member of the foreign service who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “Any time you can get an end result as the United States of America and not be seen as moving the chess piece, but having the chess piece move as if it were destined to do that, as long as you don’t mind who gets the credit, you get the checkmate.”
The communist nation has become a massive force in Latin America, building a level of economic and political power in the United States’s neighborhood unlike anyone would have imagined a decade or two ago.
China moved aggressively into the region following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, when there was an incentive for Latin American countries to sell their minerals and commodities to the rapidly growing Asian power.
Limiting the United States’ ability to respond, China directed much of its investment at countries that were then adversaries of the United States, including Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela.
But the United States also gave up ground by backing away from the mercantilism efforts of the past to drum up business overseas, Feeley said. There were also political realities for an administration seeking to address concerns of an American public reeling from the great recession.
The challenge was educating working America about the benefits of international trade and investment.
China’s entry into Latin America may have been inevitable, but it also allowed Asian leaders to get back at the United States for what they saw as meddling in their sphere of influence, such as continuing to sail Navy ships in the South China seas, said José Cárdenas, who served in the National Security Council under George W. Bush and regularly speaks with Trump administration officials.
“It’s a little bit of payback,” said Cárdenas, who described China as one of Venezuela’s enablers. “The fact that they can be present and cause the United States such consternation and divert U.S. attention to instability in the northern part of South America, to them, is a form of payback.”
Today, the region largely stands aligned with the United States and Guaidó with the exception of Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua.
Eric Farnsworth, who served as the senior advisor to the White House Special Envoy for the Americas from 1995-1998, said China must consider what leaders are more likely to obtain the needed financing and resources to reboot the nation’s oil industry that has become crippled by the Maduro government’s mismanagement despite sitting on one of the world’s largest oil reserves.
“You need to have international support to refloat the oil economy in Venezuela in order to get production up,” said Farnworth, who is now a vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington, D.C. “If you get production to increase, the likelihood increases that your loans are paid back.”
The Trump administration has promised to continue to use all its tools from sanctions to visa restrictions in order to increase the pressure on Maduro.
South American diplomats say they’re encouraging Chinese officials to align themselves with the nations behind Guaidó. It’s a message being delivered informally and formally when Chinese officials visit Latin American countries and Latin American leaders visit China.
“Look, it’s a matter of time before there is change in Venezuela,” the diplomat said China is told in these meetings.