Why does Brazil’s Workers’ Party still support the Maduro regime in Venezuela?

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The Venezuelan government's authoritarian turn over the past years poses a dilemma for Latin America's left. Chávez and Maduro have provided tireless diplomatic and financial support to other left-wing leaders in the region since coming to power in Caracas in 1999. As a consequence, governments in La Paz, Managua and Havana are now returning the favor, attempting to block growing efforts by the international community to isolate the Venezuelan regime -- with remarkable success so far. In Montevideo, the governing Broad Front coalition contains both moderates who readily agree that Maduro has gone too far, and radicals who insist on defending the Bolivarian revolution. Uruguay was the main reason that the declaration crafted by Mercosur’s leaders last week in Mendoza on the situation in Venezuela was extremely timid, in effect reassuring Nicolás Maduro that he would have little to fear from his southern neighbors. Left-wing parties across the continent so far signalled their continued support. After the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s decision to strip Congress of its legislative powers earlier this year, Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) published a note in support of the Venezuelan president, defending the court’s decision.

Yet with the regime in Caracas brutally cracking down on dissent and imprisoning opposition politicians, public opinion in the region is turning against Chávez's heir. As the Venezuelan economy is collapsing, producing hundreds of thousands of refugees, openly defending the Maduro regime is becoming politically costlier across the continent -- after all, very few voters in Brazil, Uruguay or elsewhere desire a Venezuela-style government in their home countries. Even Marea Socialista, a left-wing group which joined Venezuela's Socialist Party when it was founded in 2007 by the late President Huge Chávez, left it in 2015 in protest of the course set for the party by Maduro, recently issuing a stern rebuke to what it calls "totalitarian tendencies". Privately, even left-wing grandees across the region admit the vote on July 30 for the constituent assembly would erase the last vestiges of democracy in Venezuela. Julio Delgado of Brazil's Socialist Party (PSB), which traditionally supported Chávez, recently put it bluntly: "Maduro's regime is crazy. The constituent assembly that he called is an attempt to create a totalitarian state." 

This did not stop Gleisi Hoffmann, the newly-minted president of Brazil's Workers's Party from emphatically defending Nicolás Maduro at a recent meeting of the Forum of São Paulo in Managua. As she stated,

The PT expresses its support and solidarity with the government of the PSUV, its allies and President Nicolás Maduro in the face of the violent right-wing offensive against the Venezuelan government and condemns the recent terrorist attack against the Supreme Court. We expect the Constituent Assembly to contribute to an ever greater consolidation of the Bolivarian revolution and that political differences will be solved peacefully.

Given the party's alliance with the Venezuelan government over the past years, this should not come as a surprise. After all, ex-President Lula strongly supported Hugo Chávez ahead of the election in 2012 despite unmistakable signs of authoritarian tendencies in Venezuela. Only a year later, Lula described Chávez's death as an irrecoverable loss, adding that "Chávez knew, and knew with great force, that the reason for his being in government was to make the poor people of Venezuela feel proud, to have rights."

Four years later, however, it was, quite paradoxically Lula himself who privately criticized Gleisi Hoffmann for supporting Venezuela's embattled president. Brazil's former leader is said to be critical of the constituent assembly and personally prefers Brazil to take a neutral stance to regain its status as a potential mediator between the government and the opposition. So why did Hoffmann decide to come out in full support of President Maduro?

There are several potential explanations for her decision, few of which are related to the state of democracy in Venezuela. Hoffmann is part of the moderate (and dominant) grouping within PT, called "Building a New Brazil", controlled by President Lula, and the move could be an attempt to build support among the Workers' Party's more radical factions, many of whom are critical of the Hoffmann's more mainstream policy positions. Indeed, anything but PT's explicit support to Maduro would have been a remarkable change of course, causing fierce internal criticism. The fact that the PT is currently an opposition party, thus having little influence on the Brazilian government's actual foreign policy, assures that her stance has few tangible consequences beyond the domestic debate. Though purely hypothetical, there is reason to believe that the party's views on Venezuela would be different if Dilma Rousseff were still President of Brazil today. Rousseff, after all, was known to harbor a profound dislike for Maduro, and she invited members of Venezuela's opposition to Brasília in the final months of her government, a move sharply criticized by leaders in Caracas at the time.

Another interpretation is that Hoffmann sees Maduro as a key ally in the coming months. Having been charged by the Federal Police in the ongoing Lava Jato investigations, she knows that Maduro would be one of the few governments in the world to defend her if she were to be convicted. In any case, her decision symbolizes an emerging rift within the Workers' Party between hardliners and more moderate figures such as Lula or São Paulo's former mayor Fernando Haddad. If either of the two men were to officially run for President next year, the PT's position vis-à-vis Venezuela can be expected to change.

Read also:

Globo News Painel: A crise na Venezuela, o impacto na América Latina e o papel do Brasil

Venezuela: não há solução sem Pequim (EL PAÍS)

How Venezuelan Refugees Are Surviving in Brazil (Americas Quarterly)