The United Kingdom has an opportunity to become a more significant player in Latin America while setting an example for other European countries. Venezuela is an important test case of how truly 'global' post-Brexit Britain wants to be.
Latin America has not seen a meaningful British presence in over 100 years. In colonial times, Britain was one of the leading powers with interests, particularly in the West Indies. In the 1820s, it supported the independence movements from Spain and built trading relationships with the newly formed countries. After most British business interests were sold to fund the country’s efforts in world war one, Britain largely disappeared as a major player, with only occasional spikes in interest, such as the 1982 Falklands war.
Today, Britain’s interest in the region is growing again. 'South America would not form the FCO’s top regional priority,' a report by the Commons’ foreign affairs committee argued in 2019. 'However, there are considerable opportunities for UK influence in South America, such as through trade, which are not currently being maximised. Furthermore, there are also indirect security threats emanating from the continent, such as the growth of the narcotics trade, which require mitigation.'
Since mass protests against the regime of Nicolás Maduro started in 2017, the European Union has hesitated to take bolder action. First, it imposed a narrow sanctions regime on a small number of Maduro cronies and an embargo on arms exports to Venezuela. After a fraudulent presidential election in May 2018, it took over a month (and a lot of hand wringing) to beef up the sanctions regime to include 18 Venezuelan nationals. Today, this list is at a mere 36 individuals, compared to Canada’s 113 designees.
One reason for this tepid policy is Spain’s continued dominance of the EU’s foreign policy toward Latin America. Not only were political relations between Chávez and the Spanish government notoriously warm, the ties eventually took on a more nefarious nature. Within Europe, Spain is now a hotbed of Chavista money laundering and a principal port of entry for drugs trafficked through Venezuela.
Following the UK’s exit from the EU, the British government has upheld the bloc's sanctions regime. Moreover, in one critical respect, it has gone further. After yet another stolen election in December 2020, which cost the constitutional interim president Juan Guaidó and the opposition their seats in the National Assembly, the EU’s official statements stopped recognising their political mandate and started referring to Guaidó alternatingly as a 'political and civil society actor striving to bring back democracy to Venezuela,' an 'important actor' and a 'privileged interlocutor'.
In contrast, the UK has been unambiguous in recognising Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela. As a Foreign Office statement reacting to the fraudulent parliamentary election in December 2020 puts it, 'the UK recognises the National Assembly democratically elected in 2015 and recognises Juan Guaidó as interim constitutional President of Venezuela.'
Far from a matter of semantics, recognition as interim president matters greatly — if nothing else, than to the physical safety of Guaidó and his team. As a mere 'civil society actor', Guaidó is in grave danger — in 2020, the cases of repression against civil society organisations increased by 157 per cent. The language also signals that the EU will only help Guaidó as it does other civil society actors in the country — which is to say not much at all. The vacillation also increases the willingness of China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, and Turkey to double down on Maduro and thwart any political transition.
Recognition is key for Guaidó to access funds that have been confiscated or frozen from corrupt Maduro officials. It also serves as a basis for refusing the Maduro regime’s request to access the country’s assets around the world. It was on that basis that a UK High Court initially rejected the Maduro regime’s lawsuit aimed at repatriating Venezuelan gold held at the Bank of England. Given the UK government’s consistency in recognising Guaidó and the 2015 National Assembly as the legitimate representatives of the country, and the well-founded fear that these monies would fund the regime’s repressive machinery, it is more likely than not that the High Court will uphold the decision following the regime’s successful appeal in October last year.
Without the need to reach lowest common denominator compromises with 27 EU member states, the UK is free to lead by example. One area where bolder action by the British government would hinder the Maduro regime’s ability to operate is coal exports. Following the US sanctions against the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, Maduro sought to make up for the lost revenue by boosting the country’s coal exports, including prominently to the UK. While the revenue pales in comparison to previous earnings from oil and gas, it is a lifeline for the increasingly cash-strapped regime. Putting an end to those imports would be a win across the board for the British government by demonstrating international leadership, denying hard currency to an illegitimate regime – and making the UK’s energy mix cleaner in the process.
Finally, the Biden administration welcomes any help it can get in tackling the numerous international crises it faces. A UK stand on Venezuela would count among the easiest ways to bolster the special relationship in an increasingly unstable world.