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.”

Venezuela has opted to involve itself in African politics, reinforcing the trend towards authoritarianism in African governments. Recent years have witnessed the ouster of elected governments and their replacement by military coups in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, alongside shifts away from the West and toward closer ties with China and Russia. Indeed, Russia’s Wagner Group has deployed troops in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, and Mali. Although it is dubious that Africa will see Venezuelan troops, Caracas can offer another authoritarian influence in the broader game of international politics. Likely, Venezuela will not back any international sanctions against Africa’s new military regime and vice versa. 

Looking ahead, Venezuela is likely to continue its diplomatic push into Africa. Success in its African lobbying could help pave its way into the BRICS, a major step in breaking its diplomatic isolation. For African countries, the cost of engaging Venezuela is low. Nostalgia for Chávez lingers in many quarters, grievances over colonialism remain vis-à-vis the West, and Venezuela portrays itself as a sympathetic fellow traveler. However, this gets complicated when certain lines are crossed, such as the possibility of South African arms sales to Russia. One potential flashpoint for African nations could be if Venezuela invades its neighbor, Guyana, of which Caracas claims two-thirds. Guyana is a rising petrostate and maintains its own set of ties to African countries. Will Venezuela remain an attractive partner for African countries, many of whom are highly sensitive to threats to their internationally recognized borders? 

While Venezuela’s African gambit is not by itself a geopolitical game changer, it is a subtle reminder that geopolitics in Africa are a competitive game. Venezuela adds one more authoritarian finger on the diplomatic scales in favor of countries that do not have the best interests of the United States at heart.

Dr. Scott B. MacDonald is the Chief Economist for Smith’s Research & Gradings, a Caribbean Policy Consortium Fellow, and a Research Fellow at Global Americans. His most recent book is The New Cold War, China and the Caribbean (Palgrave Macmillan 2022).