Donald Trump has asked the world to pick a side in the disturbing crisis engulfing Venezuela — and the results reveal how divisive the catastrophe has become.
Looking at a map of who supports who in the South American nation’s political chaos, you’ll see a divide which is disturbingly reminiscent of the bitter Cold War East-West global split which came close to destroying our planet through thermonuclear for decades.
Despite the Berlin Wall being ripped down almost 30 years ago, the map shows Russia, China, Iran, Syria and Cuba on one side backing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, pitted against the United States, Canada, and the majority of South American nations on the other.
Venezuela’s status as a major oil producer — it has the world’s largest underground oil reserves, but crude production continues to crash — means its political instability has deep implications globally.
Yesterday, Australia joined the United States and others in recognising Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela, as the country grapples with deadly protests and political unrest.
A third group of “fence-sitters” can be found in Western Europe and India — but the UK, Spain, Germany, France and most other EU members (plus a few other countries, such as Ukraine, Norway and, further afield, in Japan) say they are taking a compromise position.
This means that if Mr Maduro doesn’t call fresh elections within eight days, they will recognise his rival as Venezuela’s leader.
So far, Mr Maduro has refused to hold an election.
The remainder of the world’s superpowers are calling for dialogue.
It comes as Venezuela, which is suffering through hellish crime, corruption and starvation — has been dealt a potentially crucial hammer blow by Mr Trump.
This morning the US government hit Venezuela’s state-owned oil firm PDVSA with crippling sanctions and urged the country’s military to give up power peacefully.
Venezuela has been gripped by weeks of mass protests against Mr Maduro, who has overseen years of economic free fall in the natural resources-rich South American nation.
Crushing currency controls and fixed food prices, compounded by a collapse in the price of oil, have led to widespread food and medical shortages that have forced millions of people to starve or flee.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne now says Juan Guaido, the Opposition leader and President of the National Assembly, ought to lead the Latin American nation until fresh elections are held.
“Australia calls for a transition to democracy in Venezuela as soon as possible,” Senator Payne said on Monday.
“We now urge all parties to work constructively towards a peaceful resolution of the situation, including a return to democracy, respect for the rule of law and upholding of human rights of the Venezuelan people.”
Australia’s announcement follows similar decisions in recent days by Britain, France, Germany and Spain.
However, Anthea McCarthy-Jones, from the University of NSW, said so long as the Venezuelan armed forces supported the President it would be very difficult for change to happen.
“But if they change their mind, I could see a power transition happening very quickly,” Dr McCarthy-Jones told AAP.
“If you look at Venezuelan history, it’s when the armed forces decide to come in and out of their barracks that usually determines change in these situations.” Dr McCarthy-Jones is watching closely for signs of dissent or defections from the Venezuelan military.
“You just need enough members of the Venezuelan armed forces to change their mind, and maybe withdraw support, and then I think we would see things falling like dominoes pretty quickly and Maduro swept from power,” she said. “But until that happens, we’re just going to see a lot of posturing and political rhetoric.”
President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued statements last week proclaiming US recognition of Mr Guaido, saying the US would take all diplomatic and economic measures necessary to support a transition to a new government.
But Washington’s adversaries are issuing warnings against US intervention. Russian officials have called the move a “coup” orchestrated by the US.
The US and Russia already are at odds over Syria’s civil war, and the Venezuelan crisis has the potential to add further strain. Russian-US ties have sunk to post-Cold War lows over Moscow’s support of separatists in Ukraine and allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.
“We view the attempt to usurp power in Venezuela as something that contradicts and violates the foundations and principles of international law,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
In a phone call with Mr Maduro, President Vladimir Putin expressed support, noting that “destructive foreign interference tramples on basic norms of the international law,” and called for a peaceful dialogue, according to the Kremlin.
And Russia has taken a special interest in Venezuela. Last month, Russia sent two Tu-160 nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela for several days in what was seen as a precursor for a possible long-term military presence.
Mr Pompeo criticised the move at the time as “two corrupt governments squandering public funds and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer. Peskov dismissed the comment as “undiplomatic” and “inappropriate,” saying that half of the US military budget “would be enough to feed the whole of Africa”.
China’s Foreign Ministry also sternly urged against interference by Washington in Venezuela. Beijing’s allies, including Iran and Syria, followed suit.
China “opposes external intervention in Venezuela,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “We hope that Venezuela and the United States can respect and treat each other on an equal footing, and deal with their relations based on noninterference in each other’s internal affairs.”
In the last decade, China has given Venezuela $65 billion in loans, cash and investment. Venezuela owes it more than $20 billion. China’s only hope of being repaid appears to lie in Venezuela ramping up oil production, although low oil prices and the country’s crashing economy appear to bode poorly for such an outcome.
The Russian state-controlled oil company Rosneft has invested heavily in Venezuela, and its chief executive, Igor Sechin, visited Caracas in November, pressuring the Maduro government to make good on its commitments to his company.
Russia, a major oil producer itself, has been buying oil from the state-run Venezuelan company PDVSA, and Mr Sechin reportedly went to Caracas to raise concerns about Venezuela halting oil supplies.
Russia is estimated to have poured in at least $17 billion in Venezuela in loans and investment since Mr Maduro’s populist predecessor, Hugo Chavez, came to power in 1999. The Economic Development Ministry said Russia has invested around $4 billion in Venezuela, mostly in joint oil projects.
Asked if Russia would be willing to grant asylum to Mr Maduro, the Kremlin spokesman Mr Peskov refused to speculate and insisted that Moscow views Mr Maduro as the only legitimate leader. Mr Maduro visited Moscow in early December, seeking political and economic assistance as Venezuela has faced sky-high inflation and food shortages.
For Iran, its relationship with Venezuela hinges on their mutual enmity toward the US.
Mr Chavez travelled to Iran in 2006 and received the country’s Islamic Republic Medal, its highest award, from hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called Mr Chavez a “brother and a trench mate”.
Mr Chavez vowed Venezuela would “stay by Iran at any time and under any condition.” Both leaders faced criticism from then-US president George W. Bush and offered their own withering criticism of him.
After Mr Maduro took power upon Mr Chavez’s death in 2013, Iran has maintained its support of Venezuela. On Thursday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi criticised the US and other countries over meddling in Venezuela.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran supports the government and people of Venezuela against any foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Venezuela or any other illegitimate and illegal measure such as a coup d’etat,” Mr Ghasemi said.
Strong endorsement for the current Venezuelan government also came from Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a message of support: “My brother Maduro! Stay strong, we are by your side.”
Turkey also has cultivated close economic and political ties with Mr Maduro. During a visit to Venezuela in December, Mr Erdogan blamed US sanctions for the country’s economic hardships.
Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkey, under Mr Erdogan, would “maintain its principled stance against coup attempts.” Mr Erdogan himself faced a military coup attempt in 2016.
Syria also came to the defence of Mr Maduro’s government.
Damascus reaffirmed its “full solidarity with the leadership and people of the Venezuelan Republic in preserving the country’s sovereignty and foiling the American administration’s hostile plans,” the Syrian Foreign Ministry said.
Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said Havana “expresses its unwavering solidarity” with the Maduro government. Cuba has sent its closest ally tens of thousands of workers, from doctors to intelligence officials, and in return has received tens of thousands of barrels a day in heavily subsidised oil.