Venezuela’s Africa Gambit

Venezuela’s Africa Gambit

Engagement with Africa is Venezuela’s solution to diplomatic isolation and a way to expand its brand as an anti-imperialist tribune of the “Global South.”

In 2023, Venezuela made a sustained effort to raise its diplomatic profile in Africa and will likely do so in 2024 as well. Africa is viewed by Venezuela as a valuable bloc of countries that can help it break out of its diplomatic isolation, as they are generally reluctant to judge the Latin American country’s authoritarian and corrupt internal politics. In addition, Venezuela’s efforts to develop closer ties with Africa align with a broader ideological panorama encompassing the “Global South” and the expansion of the BRICS+. In particular, Venezuela has deepened ties with South Africa. In an arena already crowded by competition between China, Russia, the United States, and Europe, Venezuela’s entrance adds another anti-American voice into the geopolitical mix. 

Venezuela’s recent efforts to raise its profile in Africa are built upon foundations constructed during the presidency of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013). During his tenure, he visited Algeria, Angola, Benin, Gambia, Mozambique, and South Africa, some of which had never been visited by prior Venezuelan leaders. At the same time, Chávez extended offers of cheap or free oil to some of the poorer African nations, such as Benin, Mali and Niger. Notably, during Chávez’s 2006 visit to Mali, he stated: “I will give Mali $100 million a year in petroleum products, and I do not want payment in cash. I don’t want to hear you say thank you.” Chávez indicated that in return, he could be repaid in bauxite, gold, and other goods as well, currying favor with these nations at the United Nations, where Venezuela’s deepening conflict with the United States and the “Global North” necessitated more allies.

Chávez’s appeal came at several levels. His strident verbiage against the forces of imperialism and his acknowledgment of African descent resonated well in Africa, particularly in leftist circles. Following Chávez’s death in 2013, one African leftist stated: “A superficial reading might suggest that Venezuela is an insignificant actor in Africa’s geopolitical landscape. But a deeper analysis reveals a keen and distinct approach to the continent. Chávez invested energies in the recognition of the continent as a strategic partner.” 

Venezuela’s engagement with Africa faded during Maduro’s tenure, but Chávez’s attention to Africa is fondly remembered. The Maduro regime was forced to focus on domestic matters amid the collapse of international oil prices in 2014, severe economic mismanagement, a sustained opposition challenge, a massive outflow of the country’s population (over six million), and tough international economic sanctions advanced by the United States and other countries. Maduro remained in power by consolidating the support of the Chávista political elite, the military, transnational criminal organizations, and aid from various countries, notably Cuba, Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey. 

Despite intense pressure, Maduro has endured, and 2023 witnessed efforts to break out of the country’s isolation. This was facilitated by the election of left-wing Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who invited the Venezuelan leader to the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in May 2023. Relations with Colombia also saw an improvement following the election of leftist Gustavo Petro, who moved quickly to normalize relations. Yet, the Biden administration’s decision in October 2023 to ease sanctions on Venezuela’s oil and gold exports in return for the Maduro administration’s agreement to hold free elections in 2024. In this context, Venezuela’s Africa policy must be considered.

There are four tenets of Venezuela’s increased engagement with Africa. First, Caracas hopes to reduce its isolation further, building upon the positive memories of Chávez. Any gains in closer ties to African countries can be seen as a gain in Venezuelan foreign policy. This objective was underscored by the official state visits by Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yván Gil Pinto in October 2023 to Ethiopia, Rwanda, Egypt, Uganda, and the African Union. Several minor agreements were signed, and goodwill for all was pronounced. 

The second tenet of Venezuela’s African policy aims to advance the struggle against U.S. interests with a group of countries that identify with the Global South. These countries share historical grievances against past imperialist transgressions and do not wish to be aligned with either the West or the China-Russia bloc. Although Venezuelan trade with Africa is negligible, it is tapping international forums for anti-U.S. sentiment. A notable instance is Venezuela’s backing of South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice over the conflict in Gaza that started in October 2023. According to the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry in January 2024: “Venezuela, as a country committed to diplomacy for peace, recognizes South Africa’s firm and historic step in defense of the Palestinian people and international law.” Venezuela is not the only Latin American country to support South Africa’s case, with Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, and Colombia all coming out in favor of such an action. 

Relations between Venezuela and Israel have been poor, especially during the Gaza War of 2008-2009, when Caracas severed diplomatic ties with Jerusalem and expelled the Israeli ambassador. Maduro has continued in Chávez’s footsteps, accusing Israel of carrying out genocide against the Palestinian people and reaffirming Venezuela’s “unconditional support” for Palestine’s liberation struggle against Israeli alleged apartheid. 

The third major tenet is that Venezuela is courting South Africa, which is probably seen as a gateway into the BRICS+ and a partner to deepen relations with the Global South. South Africa, Africa’s most industrialized economy, gifted with considerable natural resources, is seen as an influential voice in a more vocal Global South. In addition, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Christopher S. Chivvis, Zainab Usman, and Beatrix Geaghan-Breiner noted in December 2024 that “since its accession to BRICS in 2010 (by China’s invitation), Pretoria has viewed its collaboration with China and other BRICS members as a means of promoting a more multipolar world order. As the smallest BRICS member—by economic size and population—it values having a seat at the table with larger powers.” Critical in this regard, South Africa can represent African interests in a powerful, non-Western organization that includes some of the world’s largest economies, such as Brazil, China, India, and Russia.   

South Africa’s foreign policy is complicated. China stands as its major trade partner, and the African country has opted to have an “actively non-aligned” stance on the Russo-Ukrainian War. In 2023, it hosted joint naval maneuvers off its east coast with China and Russia. Moreover, there have been multiple high-ranking visits to Moscow by high-ranking members of the African National Congress (ANC), the country’s ruling party, since 1994, and South Africa’s army chief made a trip to Moscow described as a “goodwill visit.”  

Relations with the United States are more strained despite its importance as a trade and investment partner in South Africa. Both countries share a democratic political system, and Washington values Pretoria’s networks with the rest of Africa. However, the closeness with China and Russia complicates relations. This was evident in May 2023 when the U.S. ambassador to Pretoria accused South Africa of supplying weapons to Russia. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government denied this. Still, the ship involved in the event had already been sanctioned in 2022 by the United States for its engagement in transporting military equipment for Russia. Tensions escalated further amid speculation that President Vladimir Putin was to visit South Africa at a BRICS summit in 2023, despite being subject to an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for alleged war crimes involving the abductions of children in Ukraine. As it was, Putin decided not to join the summit. Nor did Maduro, with his trip postponed for unknown reasons. 

Considering all the above. South Africa looms large for Venezuelan foreign policy. This becomes more urgent as Venezuela aims to gain membership in the BRICS, a move that would no doubt help tilt that organization’s stance further against the United States. Indeed, Maduro stated in early January 2024, “We are betting on BRICS as part of a new world, a new balance, as part of the Bolivarian geopolitical concept, a world of balance, a world of equals.” Venezuela’s ticket to BRICS membership will need South Africa’s support. 

The fourth major tenet of Venezuela’s Africa policy sits in a much murkier ground: gold smuggling. Despite sanctions leveled against Venezuela for its oil and gold exports, there are suspicions that the Maduro regime utilized Mali as a major conduit of gold, eventually destined for the United Arab Emirates. 

Mali would fit the pattern of Venezuela’s commodity smuggling, originating from southern Venezuela, where a combination of regime insiders, the military, organized crime, and Colombian revolutionary groups preside over gold extraction and transportation through regional hubs like Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Suriname, Guyana, and Panama. 

The Mali-Venezuelan connection gained international notoriety in 2021 when Venezuela’s opposition movement revealed that the Maduro regime was smuggling gold to the African country using Russian-owned planes, registering the precious metal as domestically produced, and shipping it to the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s leading gold refining and sales hubs. It is estimated that in 2020 alone, gold trafficking to Mali brought in an estimated $1 billion to the Maduro regime. While data is difficult to find, some degree of gold smuggling may continue.