Venezuela Has More Than Just Oil and China Knows It

Venezuela Has More Than Just Oil and China Knows It

The South American country’s mineral wealth is of particular interest to Beijing, and the CCP is willing to invest heavily to ensure its extraction.

On May 17, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro received a delegation group led by Lin Mingxiang, vice minister of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, and discussed ways to further strengthen the strategic partnership between the two countries.

Weeks before this happened, after Maduro met with Chinese ambassador Li Baorong, Bloomberg’s Patricia Laya and Fabiola Zerpa suggested that the two were “re-establishing connections after years of cooling ties, with government contacts resuming.”

While the authors are correct to note that the public nature of these meetings is partly a reaction to intensifying U.S.-China rivalry, calling it a “rapprochement” is far from true.

China’s collaboration with the Maduro regime has been persistent, even when not displayed on TV screens. This is not just because of China’s need for oil; it also has to do with minerals, a sector where Venezuela is quietly expanding—with Beijing’s backing.

According to Freedom House’s Gerardo Berthin in a video conference two years ago, “In this moment, Venezuela is the country in the western hemisphere with the most Chinese investment.” More strikingly, Berthin suggested that according to estimates put forward by civil society organizations, close to $68 billion in loans has been given to Venezuela by China since 2007, plus around 490 agreements have been signed in “diverse areas of investment.” Berthin added that of these known agreements, 65 percent of them contained deal terms that are not publicly known, while another 22 percent contained only partial information.

Considering the evident involvement of the Asian giant in the South American country, the vast natural resources in Venezuelan lands, and the nature of the Maduro regime, it certainly isn’t unfair to posit that China is making moves to secure some of Venezuela’s mineral wealth.

Venezuelan journalists and academics have echoed this belief by claiming that Chinese companies are behind massive investments in Venezuela’s Arco Minero—an area that, according to Venezuela’s former Minister for Ecological Mining Development Roberto Mirabal, has a potential mineral value of $2 trillion.

Moreover, my recent and personal experience confirms that something suspicious is happening. After spending a few weeks in Caracas, I traveled to the world’s tallest uninterrupted waterfall, the Angel Falls, located in the Venezuelan Amazon. Before my plane even touched the ground, one could already see the contrast between the tall trees at the shore of the Caroní River and the nearby artificial mountains of sand. Although initially confused by the phenomenon, from a conversation with a gifted raconteur and private pilot, I learned that those mountains and the radioactive green colors of the nearby waters were a result of the use of mercury in the gold extraction process.

Following this first conversation, I met F.C., who took me to breathtaking falls in a five-hour motorized curiara (the Pemón version of a canoe) ride via the blood-red waters of the Carrao River. Like the pilot, F.C., a proud member of the Pemón tribe, conversed with me about how mining is destroying the place he calls home and who he believes is behind it.

“Young men in Canaima have two options today: mining or tourism,” he explained. “I choose tourism because I love our nature, and I have seen how areas full of green have lost their color.” Still, he understands that mining, even with all of its dangers and abuses, seems like a more reliable source of income to some, as tourism comes in waves, unlike the demand for minerals. He added, “I’ve lost friends, I’ve lost cousins, I’ve lost neighbors who have left to the mines and have never come back. Why? Well, because they encounter nothing but death there.”

Aside from sharing very personal stories, he talked about the changing faces of commerce and tourism in the region, saying that more Chinese and Russian “tourists” started to come to Canaima in the last decades.

Similarly, the pilot claimed that it is not just illegal mining that is plaguing the Venezuelan Amazon. In fact, he suggested that the government and its international partners are behind it. He recounted a time in which he detoured while flying over Canaima. He explained that it was “one of the scariest moments of [his] life,” as his radio was intercepted by a foul-mouthed and aggressive man, demanding that he left the area immediately. “There is prohibited airspace near Canaima that exists to hide mining activity,” he explained, assuring me that “the generals are behind this.”

“Most do not understand how much is being invested in mining in Canaima and in the entire country,” the pilot added.

Although not many talk about mining in Venezuela, as the country is synonymous with oil, it is well known that the country possesses ample mineral wealth, and wishes to exploit it. In 2018, for instance, Venezuela inaugurated its first coltan concentration plant, which also became the largest one in Latin America. Additionally, in June 2019, Maduro announced a national mining plan based on partnerships with national and international companies dedicated to the exploration and exploitation of thirteen minerals. The exact companies the government has partnered up with are not publicly known.

Furthermore, according to Maduro, with the 2019 plan, “gold would reach the international legal certification of 2,236 tons, (about €94 billion), making the country the fifth largest reserve in the world and aspiring to first place.” Likewise, with other minerals like bauxite, the Venezuelan leader added that the country has 321,350,000 thousand tons in certified reserves. In terms of nickel, Maduro claimed that Venezuela has 28,027,980 certified tons, making it the country with the largest reserves in the world.

These details undoubtedly capture the attention of the CCP. It is for this reason that they have been making massive investments in the mining sector throughout the region, as critical minerals are essential in the technological and clean energy worlds, which China hopes to dominate.

Chinese involvement in Venezuela is no different from its broader regional involvement, and the lack of publicly available information should not make us think otherwise. Even more so, it is essential to consider the strings China pulls behind the curtain if we are to properly measure its strength. By presenting Venezuela just as a chaotic nation battling illegal mining, many journalists and academics avoid exploring the various government-led efforts, and others avoid questioning why the state would acquiesce when facing illegality in this sector. Still, the more one looks into it, the more one realizes that the question of legality is not relevant in a country where the rule of law is all but a distant memory.

A more concrete and constructive project is to better assess who benefits from Venezuelan mining, how they benefit, and how these developments affect U.S. national security interests. As Westwin Elements’ Gregory Wischer observes, in our so-called backyard, “the U.S. government has largely been absent, ceding the playing field—or in this case, mineral deposits—to China.” This reality presents a more immediate threat to the United States than ecological catastrophe or foreign corruption. As such, it is time for us to shift the conversation in this direction. China understands it well— to lead the world, you must control its resources. It is a simple equation, have we forgotten it?

Juan P. Villasmil “J.P. Ballard” is a commentator and analyst who often writes about American culture, foreign policy, and political philosophy. He has been featured in The American Spectator, The National Interest, The Wall Street Journal, International Policy Digest, Fox News, Telemundo, MSNBC, and others.

Image: Courtesy of Airpano.