Colombia and Brazil have adopted similar approaches to Venezuela and likely will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Both countries have followed the United States’ lead in opposing the Maduro government but for different reasons. Their responses to the crisis stem from their individual interests and the geopolitical forces driving their behavior.
Venezuela has been mired in an economic and political crisis for years. Hyperinflation, corruption, oil sector mismanagement and plummeting energy exports have spelled disaster for the country’s economy. The U.S. has led the international response against President Nicolas Maduro, but two of Venezuela’s neighbors – Brazil and Colombia – have been critical partners in the campaign to remove Maduro from office. Their role in opposing his government stems from the fact that they are the most vulnerable to the mass migration and general instability resulting from the crisis. They have approached the issue in similar fashion so far, calling for Maduro’s removal but rejecting military intervention.
But what’s really driving their responses to the crisis? And why have they been among the region’s most vocal opponents of the Maduro government? Before we can answer these questions, we need a geopolitical basis for understanding South America’s place in the world and Brazil’s and Colombia’s most pressing geopolitical interests. South America is a region that gets little attention in geopolitical discussions, in part because the continent lies on the edge of the global system. It interacts with major geopolitical players but generally doesn’t drive major shifts, disruptions and developments. This doesn’t mean, however, that the basic rules of geopolitics aren’t at play in South America. In fact, they can help us identify the interests of neighboring countries and foreign powers in a country like Venezuela and, therefore, how they may respond to the unfolding crisis. Using models developed by some of the top geopolitical theorists, this Deep Dive will lay out a framework for understanding South America’s connection to the global system and the Brazilian and Colombian reactions to the upheaval in Venezuela.
South America’s Model Behavior
Geopolitically, South America is part of the periphery of the global system. Located in the Southern Hemisphere, which accounts for roughly one-third of the world’s landmass and one-tenth of its population, the continent is fairly removed from the rest of the world. It’s separated from the Eastern Hemisphere by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and connected to Central America by a short 140-mile (225-kilometer) border between Colombia and Panama.
In analyzing the behavior of South American nations, there are two common pitfalls. First, many tend to dismiss events on the continent as unimportant based on the erroneous belief that the periphery doesn’t matter. Second, there is a tendency to overemphasize politics and political leaders and treat them as geopolitically relevant. To avoid these pitfalls, we need to look at how some of the founding fathers of geopolitical theory – Alfred Thayer Mahan, Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman – framed South America in the global context.
As a former U.S. naval officer, Mahan believed that if a country could dominate the world’s oceans, it could dominate the world. This view served as the basis for the expansion of U.S. interests across the Western Hemisphere at the turn of the 20th century – which included the creation of a security perimeter that stretched into the Caribbean. The first step in this project was to reduce Spanish influence in the Caribbean so that the U.S. could emerge as the dominant power there, which was accomplished in part through the Spanish-American War. The second was to control the Isthmus of Panama, a strategic land bridge between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. The U.S. supported construction of a canal at the isthmus, which opened in 1914, so that it could control transit between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, a power that had enormous economic value.
In contrast, English geographer Mackinder took a more European approach to geopolitics. He focused on land power rather than sea power as the determinant of a nation’s global status. Mackinder formulated the heartland theory, which defined the center of Eurasia as the world’s heartland and argued that the dominant global power would come from this region. Its coastal areas – much of Europe, the Middle East and East Asia – were seen as secondary powers and areas beyond Eurasia, including the entire Western Hemisphere, as largely irrelevant. Mackinder updated his model following the two world wars, elevating North America and the North Atlantic to a status almost equivalent to that of the heartland. South America, however, still played a minimal role in Mackinder’s updated model.
Spykman believed that Mackinder overemphasized the importance of the heartland and instead posited that the center of global power was in the rimland, the coastal areas around Eurasia. He viewed the Caribbean Sea and surrounding areas as the American Mediterranean because of their central location in the Western Hemisphere. He also believed that the dividing line between north and south in the Western Hemisphere was not the Isthmus of Panama but the northern edge of the Amazon. According to Spykman, then, the northern part of South America, including Colombia and Venezuela, was essentially part of North America and included in the American Mediterranean. He believed the U.S. needed to dominate the Caribbean to establish regional security and that the construction of the Panama Canal further increased the importance of the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean in U.S. strategy. For Spykman, the U.S. faced few challenges in the Western Hemisphere, but any threat to its domination of the hemisphere come from the southern cone.
There are two important takeaways from these three models. First, the Caribbean, which includes the northern coast of South America, plays a key role in U.S. maritime security. This explains why the U.S. has intervened in Caribbean conflicts and why developments in South America can be critical to U.S. interests. Second, the northern nations of South America represent a borderland between North and South America. Conflicts and instability in this region threaten to draw in countries from both continents, and the Venezuelan crisis is one key example of this.
Brazil’s Territorial Integrity
Geographically, Brazil is defined by three key features: its large size, its natural boundaries and its north-south divide. Brazil is the fifth-largest country in the world by landmass and has long faced the challenge of filling and controlling that space. Portugal was forced to colonize northeast Brazil (rather than use it as a trading post) and move south for both security and economic reasons. Shortly after the Portuguese arrived in the Americas, other European powers followed. While it had an agreement with Spain on how to divide their respective territories, no such deal existed with the U.K., France and the Netherlands – all three of which challenged Portuguese claims in the New World. The colony also needed land, labor and resources. Portuguese pioneers therefore pushed west for land on which to grow sugar cane and to find indigenous populations for enslavement.
Natural geographic barriers, however, limited Portuguese expansion beyond Brazil’s current borders. But in terms of security, its geography actually worked in its favor. Natural barriers insulated the country from the rest of South America and protected it from external threats. In the north, the Amazon’s dense forest and vast size prevented major military incursions from Venezuela, Colombia and Peru. Farther south, the massive Pantanal swamp fortified borders with Bolivia and Paraguay. In the east, the Atlantic Ocean protected Brazil from outside powers. The one area of geographic vulnerability is its flat southern border, though Uruguay provides some strategic depth there as a buffer state.
Brazil’s north-south divide is a result of its climate, unevenly distributed natural resources and river systems. The south, which has a more hospitable climate than the northeast, is the location of the country’s major population centers and the vast majority of its wealth. Its two major river systems – the Parana River and the Amazon River – split the country between north and south. The Amazon system passes through dense jungle and flows into the North Atlantic, while the Parana system generally flows south where it merges with the Rio de la Plata, though some of its tributaries flow directly into the South Atlantic. The two systems do not cross paths and have fostered their own economic and population centers with little connection between them.
These geographic features play critical roles in the models developed by the pioneers of Brazilian geopolitical theory, Carlos de Meira Mattos, General Golbery do Couto e Silva and Therezinha de Castro, in the mid-20th century. All three theorists emphasized the importance of territorial integrity – which is most at risk in the sprawling Amazon basin – and Brazil’s control over the South Atlantic.
This is where the Venezuelan crisis could have implications for Brazil’s broader geopolitical imperatives. Venezuela is just north of the Amazon, one of the most poorly integrated regions of Brazil. In fact, Roraima state isn’t even connected to Brazil’s electrical grid and gets its power from Venezuela. If Venezuela’s political crisis leads to military conflict or foreign military intervention, it could result in foreign forces pushing against Brazil’s borders. Any spillover into Brazilian territory could destabilize the area and disrupt connections to ports, making it even harder to reach and control this region. In the past, Brazil has opposed foreign involvement in management of the Amazon and permitted development and mining projects there because the government wants to maintain control over the whole region that falls within Brazil’s borders. This strategy helps Brazil repress any potential internal rebellion and provides strategic depth should an attack or blockade be waged on coastal areas.
Venezuelan migrants fleeing the crisis are also a challenge for Brazil. The flow of migrants toward and across the Brazilian border risks creating a borderland between the two countries that could pull the outer reaches of Brazil further away from its core. Another concern is that migrants who settle along the Brazilian border will compete with Brazilians for resources and jobs. Thus, early relief efforts involved flying Venezuelan migrants to areas farther south and settling them in larger cities. Brazil is also wary of delivering foreign humanitarian aid to Venezuelans from Brazilian territory, concerned that it could invite other kinds of external involvement in regional affairs. Brazil has therefore refused to deliver humanitarian supplies from other countries (including the United States) to Venezuela, insisting on providing only its own support.
Trade is another issue. Brazil has direct access only to the Atlantic Ocean, but its top trade partner, China, is a country that can be reached by sea only through the Pacific. To access the Pacific, therefore, it depends on sea lanes that run past Venezuela and the Caribbean to the Panama Canal. Any potential disruptions in this route – as a result of a conflict in Venezuela or a blockade to further isolate Maduro – could have major implications for the Brazilian economy.
Colombia’s Geographic Constraints
Unlike Brazil, Colombia is a bicoastal nation, meaning it has access to both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. But this status is not nearly as advantageous as one might expect. When the Panama Canal opened in 1914, it became the most important corridor between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the Western Hemisphere. Colombia never developed into a good alternative to the canal because its various mountain ranges dissect the country, making overland transportation between coasts difficult. In addition, the vast majority of Colombia’s exports and imports transit through the Atlantic Ocean, so Pacific ports and infrastructure have been relatively neglected.
Colombia’s two defining geographic features are the Andes Mountains and the Magdalena River. The Andes comprise roughly half of Colombia’s territory. (The other half is composed of the Amazon and Orinoco basins.) Just beyond the country’s Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, three distinct ranges of the Andes run across the entire length of the country’s territory, stretching from Ecuador to Venezuela. The majority of its population resides in different mountain valleys, which are poorly connected by land. The Magdalena River, however, helps integrate these disjointed parts of the country. An estimated 70-80 percent of the population lives near this river or one of its tributaries. It also facilitates the transport of goods between the interior and the Caribbean port cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena, both of which are relatively close to the Venezuelan border.
Colombia has several geographic constraints that are difficult to overcome despite the country’s strategic location. According to leading Colombian geopolitical thinker Julio Londono Paredes, it was South America’s general disjointedness and difficult terrain that gave North America a substantial power advantage over its southern neighbor. Londono Paredes believed the formation of five confederations including Gran Colombia – which united present-day Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador into one entity from 1819 to 1831 – were necessary to ensure peace in South America.
But without such a union, Colombia remains weak in relation to other large Caribbean countries, particularly Mexico and Venezuela. Both countries have influence over the region in ways that Colombia does not. Mexico has historical ties to Central America (many Central American nations belonged to the same viceroy as Mexico during colonial times) and has used these links to help protect its interests on the western edge of the Caribbean. Venezuela’s islands in the southern Caribbean Sea give the country strategic depth and influence over sea lanes. Venezuela is also situated farther east along the Caribbean coast, giving it greater access to the sea and beyond.
Colombia has overcome some of these challenges by aligning with the United States on a number of issues, including how to handle Venezuela. The U.S. welcomes Colombia as a close ally in a region where it has had few in the past, and Colombia’s alignment with the U.S. gives it a boost in the regional power balance.
It’s an advantage Colombia needs given that it shares borders with five different countries and has three three-country borders. Colombia has had territorial disputes with each of its neighbors in the past, but tensions have run deepest with Venezuela, whose disputes over land and sea borders with Colombia have focused on resource-rich areas. The Venezuelan crisis threatens to reignite these tensions. Mass migration has forced Colombian authorities to dedicate more resources to border security, though thus far, it hasn’t prevented irregular crossings. For the most part, Colombia has welcomed the migrants, but it has also struggled to cope with the sheer number of Venezuelans, about 1.5 million in total, who have fled across the border. In fact, the influx has cost Colombia 0.5 percent of gross domestic product (or roughly $1.5 billion) per year, according to Colombian President Ivan Duque. Organized crime and drug trafficking are also concerns as groups involved in illicit activities operate more or less with impunity along the Colombia-Venezuela border, raising the possibility of military involvement from both sides. The country’s two major ports, Barranquilla and Cartagena, are close to the Venezuelan border, so any spillover violence or instability could disrupt some of Colombia’s most important trade hubs.
Considering all these variables, it makes sense that Colombia has taken the strongest stance against Maduro of any country in the region. It has joined the U.S. and several other nations, including Brazil, in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president. Bogota doesn’t want the crisis to escalate into a full-blown civil war, but unlike other countries in the region, it can’t completely rule out military intervention because of the history of border disputes between the two countries, as well as the risk that the violence might spill over into Colombian territory.
Colombia needs U.S. support to protect its interests. Brazil, on the other hand, doesn’t have that same dependency on the U.S. For now, however, both Brazil and Colombia will cooperate with U.S. efforts to orchestrate Maduro’s departure because it aligns with their own national interests.