Time for Brazil to Get Tough on President Maduro

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Venezuela

Facing the worst economic and political crisis in more than two decades (a situation termed a "more-than-perfect storm" by Valor Econômico, a business daily), President Rousseff must prepare herself for one of the most complex foreign policy challenges since taking office. Assuring free and fair elections in Venezuela in early December has turned into the ultimate litmus test of Brazil's capacity to defend democracy and political stability in its neighborhood. Brazil's standing, both regionally and globally, will in no small part be affected by the successful elections four months from now.

After much background negotiations and mounting pressure from Brazil-led UNASUR, the Venezuelan government has agreed, last month, to hold parliamentary elections on December 6 -- as required by the constitution. At the time, President Maduro had also accepted that UNASUR representatives would be allowed to observe the elections. This was generally seen as a victory for Brazil, which, since the last political crisis that shook Venezuela in 2002, has institutionalized its regional leadership ambitions through the creation of UNASUR. The new grouping has effectively substituted the Organization of American States (OAS) as the go-to election watchdog and platform for mediation in times of constitutional crises in South America.

Openly contradicting Brazil's Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira, President Maduro on Tuesday announced that "Venezuela is not monitored and will not be monitored by anyone." Asked by journalists whether Venezuela would accept international observers, Maduro reiterated to "never accept anyone." Some may point out that Maduro was referring to Luis Almagro, the OAS's new Secretary General, who had asked to send observers, but the announcement was too sweeping to not affect Brazil. Even if mere rhetoric (Maduro routinely describes even the moderate opposition as “fascists”, called Spain's Prime Minister a "assassin of the Spanish people" and recently promised a revolution if the opposition won in December), such claims directly undermine Brazil's attempts to convince both international observers and Venezuela's opposition that it is capable of assuring fair elections.

Maduro's comments therefore require a public and direct response by President Dilma Rousseff, pressuring Maduro to accept the presence of independent observers, chosen by UNASUR without Venezuela's interference. These observers should be of diverse ideological background and allowed to move independently within the country, without being accompanied by Venezuelan officials, at any time between now and the elections. They should also be allowed to bring their own teams, preferably with experience in election monitoring. The Brazilian government must make clear that evidence of government interference in the electoral process would lead to a unified response by both UNASUR and Mercosur, possibly leading to the country's suspension of both organizations -- as happened with Paraguay in 2012.

Some Brazilian observers will interpret such a recommendation as support for Venezuela's opposition. Far from it: Unless Brazil can position itself as a credible and legitmate mediator for both Maduro and the opposition, its role as a defender of political stability in Venezuela stands diminished. Just like Maduro's comment deserves Rousseff's response, the Brazilian government must condemn any calls by the Venezuelan opposition to remove Maduro by any means that violate the constitution. Brazil's opposition should therefore be careful only to engage with those political opposition leaders in Venezuela who vow to end the rule of chavismo through regular elections. Neither the Venezuelan government nor several opposition leaders have always played by the rules (see a detailed and relatively balanced analysis of Leopoldo Lopez here), and Capriles's decision to compare Maduro to Hitler are as misguided as the President's exaggerated rhetoric.

Brazil's biggest mistake would be to import Venezuela's polarization when discussing the matter. That has unfortunately become the norm, and PT supporters defend Maduro (sometimes unaware that a growing portion of the left in Venezuela disapproves of him), while PSDB supporters blindly demonize the Venezuelan President. For example, calling Maduro a "tyrant", as Brazilian Senator Aloysio Nunes recently did in a blog post, is unhelpful and will polarize more, not less.

Brazil's goal is to protect democracy, not the victory of any particular faction. If the governing party won the elections in December, it will benefit Maduro immensely, boosting his legitimacy.

With historically low approval ratings for Rousseff and rumors about an impending impeachment dominating the news, the crisis in Venezuela could hardly come at a worse time for a country that has, over the past decade, played a remarkable role to help consolidate democracy in the region. Starting during Cardoso’s presidency (1995–2002), Brazil has often assertively engaged in political events in the region, diplomatically intervening when political crises have threatened democracy, and President Lula has embraced the idea of Brazilian leadership by introducing the idea of non-indifference.

Yet contrary to 2002 and 2003, when the Brazilian Presidents Cardoso and Lula were able to influence the internal dynamics in Venezuela, Brazil today is a far less credible mediator than it was a decade ago. Back in 2003, President Lula insisted on including the United States and Spain into the group “Friends of Venezuela”, which helped bring the government and the opposition together. Lula’s move proved crucial as it convinced the opposition to seriously engage in the debates. Lula may have been a left-wing president, but he was still seen as a legitimate and relatively impartial mediator by the center-right opposition in Venezuela. Both he and Brazil have since then lost this status. After Chavez’s death, Brazil’s former President Lula (still one of the most powerful political actors in the country and highly influential in the current administration) actively supported Nicolás Maduro’s campaign, a move that firmly placed Brazil - in the eyes of the opposition - in the chavista camp.

Both Venezuela and Brazil have much to lose. Venezuela is facing a terrible economic crisis (ECLAC/ CEPAL expects the Venezuelan economy to contract 5.5% in 2015), extreme inflation, unprecedented violence and a public health crisis of tragic dimensions. For Brazil, both economic and political interests are at stake. According to Valor Econômico, Venezuelan public-sector companies now owe Brazilian companies $2.5 billion in debt. If political tension and conflict increases, Brazilian business interests would be increasingly in danger, so a growing number of private sector representatives has attempted to put pressure on Dilma Rousseff to adopt a more assertive strategy.

Politically, Brazil's incapacity to control the situation severely undermines Brazil's leadership ambitions. UNASUR’s attempt to mediate in the Venezuelan conflict is a multilateral undertaking, and an interesting experiment to see in how far the continent is capable of solving its own problems. Yet given that the United States is largely staying out of the discussion, Brazil is by far the most important actor in South America best placed to assume leadership. If things go wrong in Venezuela, it is Brazil, not UNASUR, that will – rightly so – be blamed for failing to defend democracy and stability in the region. 

Read also:

Can Brazil Defend Democracy in Venezuela? (Carnegie Democracy and Rule of Law Program)

O Brasil na Venezuela (Folha de São Paulo)

Brazilian Foreign Policy: Is There Room for Activism in Times of Hardship?

Brazilian Foreign Policy: Into the Dark

Brazil’s next government must reassert its global role

Photo Credit: Jorge Silva/Reuters/VEJA