Brazil’s new president said he was going to be different, and Venezuela is his first chance to prove it. When Jair Bolsonaro took office, he made it clear that he planned to refocus Brazil’s foreign policy by re-evaluating its bilateral relations and building relationships outside of South America. On paper, this is an about-face from the policies of the past quarter century. In practice, however, there’s little concrete evidence of this foreign policy makeover. The exception is Venezuela. Brazil is delicately but deliberately charting its own course for managing the crisis next door. In the process, it’s subtly taking first steps toward regional leadership and deviating from the U.S. approach to the crisis.
A Matter of National Security
For Brazil, the Venezuela crisis is a question of national security. Other outside powers – most notably the United States – certainly have interests in Venezuela, but the chaos there doesn’t have the same direct bearing on their national security concerns. Brazil’s northern Roraima state is playing host to a growing number of migrants crossing over from Venezuela. But the state is not fully integrated into Brazil’s infrastructure, and its remoteness makes it difficult for Brasilia to project political and military power into the region. For now, the government is handling the influx of migrants, but as conditions in Venezuela deteriorate, it will be harder for Brazil to control the border.
Brasilia strongly opposes outside military intervention, and it has dedicated defense and military officials – of which there is no shortage in the government – to managing the crisis. This is particularly critical because Brazil, having recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, has a dwindling number of ways to communicate with the camp of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and it needs the right people in place to do so. Vice President Hamilton Mourao is now leading Brazil’s Venezuela response (sidelining Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo), with a mandate to reduce the threat that the crisis poses to Brazil’s national security. Mourao, who had a long military career before entering politics, is particularly well-suited for this role; he served as Brazil’s military attache to Venezuela and headed command posts in the remote northern state of Amazonas during his military career. By levying the historical ties between the two countries’ militaries, Brasilia hopes to pursue a resolution through dialogue – or at least something that’s not popular unrest verging on civil war. And in the process, Brazil is setting itself apart from the U.S. approach, which has focused on engaging with the opposition, imposing sanctions and threatening the regime with bloviations.
In remote corners of the jungle, Brazil is looking for lower-level and more localized options to mitigate the crisis. On multiple occasions, local Brazilian officials have engaged with their Venezuelan counterparts. During the Feb. 23 attempt to deliver food aid to Venezuela, there were bouts of violence between Venezuelan security forces and those seeking aid at the Brazil-Venezuela border crossing, resulting in the death of several protesters. Shortly thereafter, however, reports emerged of Brazilian troops talking with Venezuelan border guards, hoping to reduce tensions. In the end, Venezuela withdrew anti-riot vehicles. Days later, Maduro reportedly sent two Venezuelan governors and the ministers of education, food and nutrition, and indigenous peoples to talk with the governor of Roraima about how to reopen the border. And, in early March, Venezuelan media reported that government officials and Brazilian entrepreneurs were exploring partnerships to help improve nutrition and food security in Venezuela. The immediate and overriding goal of these exchanges is to help stabilize the border area. They are also low-level, low-risk moves through which Brazil is exploring options for facilitating a resolution to the crisis.
Brazil’s execution of these activities is intentional and muted. Brasilia finds itself in the difficult position of needing to both protect national security interests and preserve existing regional relationships. If it were to broadcast its local engagement efforts, Brazil would be seen as undermining the regional and U.S. position, which is focused on regime change. Instead, the government passed off each of the above cases as an informal, even spur-of-the-moment event – or altogether out of the government’s purview. Through these informal channels, however, Brasilia can support dialogue with the Maduro government, focused on local stability and aid delivery, while maintaining plausible deniability. But all of these moves could be laying the groundwork for higher-level political solutions.
Washington’s Tacit Approval
The United States had until recently taken a hands-off approach to Venezuela’s malaise. U.S. oil interests in Venezuela, and its desire to maintain stability in the region, weren’t enough to warrant intervention. It was also preoccupied with other countries like China, North Korea and Iran. As the U.S. changed course, it courted Colombia and Brazil as regional partners in its efforts to end the crisis in Venezuela. Brazil, along with the vast majority of the region, got on board. Even though its motivations and tactics differed from Washington’s, it shared the same end goal.
Historically, there have been few instances where the U.S. and Brazil have forged strong bilateral ties over shared interests. In most cases, the U.S. needs something from Brazil and sets the terms of the relationship. As Bolsonaro took office, academics, politicians and foreign policy analysts raised concerns over the idea of Brazil cozying up to the United States, believing that Brazil could get caught up in the tensions between the U.S. and its rivals, such as China and Russia, that still support Maduro. Through public statements on issues like Israel and globalism, it seemed Bolosnaro’s government was planting itself firmly in the U.S. camp. Bolosnaro’s early declaration that he favored regime change in Venezuela was seen as a near-desperate attempt to garner favor with Washington. But Brazil’s overtures to Venezuela prove that its relationship with the U.S. is secondary to its need to deal with the national security threat posed by Venezuela.
The U.S. is aware of Brazil’s new maneuvers but hasn’t publicly responded. The cost of trying to fix Venezuela is climbing, and Washington is running out of cards to play, so from its perspective, it doesn’t hurt to have Brazil trying out alternative options. For the U.S., military intervention isn’t a viable option – it would jeopardize the United States’ standing in the region. Washington has imposed a barrage of sanctions on Venezuela, and it’s rallied more than 50 countries to recognize Guaido as interim president. Now it’s playing one of the last cards it has to debilitate the Maduro regime: going after its security apparatus, by way of Cuba. Havana and Caracas have a long-standing security and intelligence-sharing relationship, and Cuba is credited with helping Maduro and his military hang on to power. The U.S. is now putting greater economic pressure on Cuba and calling on others to do the same, as Guaido asks for global support in blocking Venezuelan oil exports to Cuba.
Washington can afford to let Brazil try out its own solutions to the Venezuela crisis because they have complementary goals – an end to the crisis and political transition in Venezuela. It cannot criticize Brazil for deviating slightly from the U.S. approach, but nor will it openly endorse Brazilian efforts. Right now, the U.S. is still seen as the hemispheric leader, even on this matter. Washington has no reason to jeopardize its regional image, especially when Brazil’s moves are still low-level, low-risk and not fully developed.
The crisis in Venezuela gives Brazil an opportunity to assume greater regional leadership at a time when the country’s entire foreign policy is being re-evaluated. Historically, Brazil has shirked the role of regional leader, unsure if it wants to assume the accompanying responsibility. But it now faces security threats from Venezuela, and Brazil will have to deal with them, whether it likes it or not. In the process, Brazil will also have to decide whether it’s ready to assume regional leadership.