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An African position on Venezuela?

Clarissa Herrmann
March 3, 2019

The international community is divided over Venezuela. The UN Security Council has failed to agree on two resolutions on the political crisis. Most African countries are, however, reluctant to position themselves.

UN Security Council discusses situation in Venezuela
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Wenig

What is the correct response to Venezuela's crisis? This past week, the UN Security Council debated two draft resolutions , one from Russia and one from the US, on this matter. The US demanded free elections and the opening of the border to aid deliveries.  Nine countries, including Germany supported this demand. South Africa and China, however, voted against the proposal, backing the Russian call for noninterference in Venezuelan politics. Equatorial Guinea also backed the Russian proposal, which failed, however, to garner enough support. 

For weeks, Venezuela has now been in political limbo due to a power struggle between opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized by 50 countries as interim president, and Nicolas Maduro, who remains the acting president. Venezuela has been facing severe food and medicine shortages, which have pushed as many as 3 to 4 million people to leave the country. 

A question of legitimacy

"The parliament declared Maduro's second term in office to be illegal," said Henning Suhr, who heads the South African bureau of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a foundation affiliated with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat party. Between 2013 to 2017 he worked for the foundation in Venezuela. The country's parliament should have appointed an electoral commission before the presidential elections, he told DW, but the government overrode it, he explained.

Chadian opposition politician Saleh Kebzabo, however, doesn't buy the illegal-term argument. "This is an excuse for the powerful countries, but they have their own interests at heart," he told DW.

Read more: Opinion. A new Cold War in Venezuela?

The South African Development Community (SADC) also refuses to back Guaido. Members of the international community are trying to "undermine a democratically elected government," declared Namibian President Hage Geingob, who is currently chairman of SADC.

Apart from South Africa, which backs Maduro, and Morocco, which backs Guaido, most African countries have refrained from taking a stance on Venezula. Equatorial Guinea, which, as it has been said, voted for the Russian resolution in the UN Security Council, withheld its vote on the US proposal. Ivory Coast, which currently also has a seat on the Security Council, withheld its vote both times. 

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa
South Africa's ruling ANC party has longstanding relations with VenezuelaImage: Getty Images/AFP/G. Khan

The discretion of the African countries.

Seidik Abba, an editor at the paper Le Monde Afrique, is not surprised about the reluctance of African countries. "They don't want to position themselves against their European or Western partners," he told DW.

Many African countries have historical ties to Venezuela. During the Cold War, several African resistance movements were supported by socialist regimes. Angola, for instance, received direct military support from Cuba. Many of the ties still exist today, explains Suhr.

Additionally, Maduro's predecessor, longtime ruler Hugo Chavez, supported several African countries. "As an oil-producing country, Venezuela shared its oil with poorer African countries. Venezuela gave large amounts of oil to countries like Mali, Niger and Benin for free," said Abba. The government also supported civil society groups in Africa. The support may have waned under Maduro, but many political groups still feel a strong connection to the socialist government.

Jorge Arreaza, former Venezuelan vice president, in South Africa
Venezuela's ex-Vice President Arreaza gifted a sword to the grandson of South Africa's first black president, Nelson Mandela Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schreiber

Double standards?

Suhr believes that a good portion of anti-imperialism and anti-American sentiment is also responsible for the lack of support for Guaido. He thinks that the decision by South Africa's ruling ANC party to support Maduro was a purely ideological one, which surprises him. "Venezuela has several political prisoners. The majority of the population is suffering. Maduro can only hold onto power with the help of the military. This is very similar to what happened with the apartheid regime here in South Africa,” Suhr said. 

Abba, on the other hand, criticized the different ways in which Western nations responded to the crisis in Venezuela and to similar situations on the African continent, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi was declared the winner of the December 2018 elections. The influential Catholic Church and other observers believe that opposition candidate Martin Fayulu should have won the polls. Western nations have, however, remained silent on the issue. "I can't understand how you can support Guaido in Venezuela, but not support Martina Fayulu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Maurice Kamto in Cameroon," Abba said.

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