Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are raising concerns over Russia’s expanding influence in Venezuela and voicing renewed support for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who just last week attended President Trump‘s State of the Union address as a surprise guest of the White House.
Guaidó’s bipartisan reception on Capitol Hill, where he received a standing ovation during Trump’s speech and later met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), came amid Moscow strengthening its ties with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
“The fact that he made such a splash here — you know, he met with the president, he met with the Speaker, he met with the Republican leaders — I think that gives him a lot more clout than he had before to continue to promote free and fair elections,” said Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
Guaidó, recognized by the United States and 58 other countries as the legitimate president, visited Washington last week to bolster his credentials as a bulwark against Russian influence in South America.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), who was in the meeting with Pelosi and Guaidó, said the opposition leader warned of increasing Russian influence in his home country.
“President [Guaido] was very clear that at this moment, the Russian effort to prop up the regime has gotten much stronger,” said Mucarsel-Powell, the only South America-born lawmaker serving in Congress.
“Right now, my focus is going to be to try to put pressure on the administration here in the United States to sanction Russia and to try to put pressure on Russia to stop propping up this narco-regime,” added Mucarsel-Powell.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said the U.S. and its allies need to take a hard line against Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s role in Venezuela.
“The international community, which recognizes Juan Guaidó and the democratically elected National Assembly as Venezuela’s legitimate government, cannot ignore Putin’s meddling,” Rubio said. “Minimizing Russia’s malign influence in Venezuela risks allowing Maduro to continue clinging to his illegitimate power and prolonging the agony of the regime’s man-made crisis.”
Maduro has become increasingly reliant on financial, military and political support from Putin.
“[The Russians] see a long-term opportunity there,” said Roger Noriega, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who was the State Department’s top Western Hemisphere diplomat under former President George W. Bush. “Putin saw that from the beginning, to have a presence right under our noses and influence in this region.”
Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, were always seen as natural allies to Putin, but the bilateral relationship solidified in 2017 when Russia restructured Venezuela’s sovereign debt.
Russia also took a stake in the country’s energy industry by investing in Venezuela’s national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, through its Russian counterpart, Rosneft.
Although Venezuela’s economic meltdown has made for a rocky commercial relationship, Russia has doubled down on its investment.
“They’ve hung in there even though they were frustrated with inefficiencies, failures and Venezuela, frankly, stiffing them because they started to see strategic benefits,” said Noriega. “This is where it pivots to be more in America’s face. And vis-à-vis Crimea and Ukraine they [said], ‘We’ll see what you think of us meddling in your region.'”
The Trump administration has imposed tough sanctions on Venezuela, and Elliott Abrams, the special representative for Venezuela, warned last week that “the Russians may soon find that their continued support of Maduro will no longer be cost-free.”
But Putin’s disregard for U.S. sanctions and Venezuela’s lack of options have put Russia firmly in command.
“They’re in a position where they can kind of freeload. [Russia] can take without giving anything right now,” said Michael McCarthy, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.
Still, McCarthy warned against overstating “the extent to which Russia is willing to go to bat for Maduro.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Caracas last week as Guaidó toured the United States, touting the Russia-Venezuela political and commercial relationship.
Still, some American lawmakers believe that relationship is grounded in a bad investment and a need by Russia to recoup its losses.
“Russia is owed a lot of money, and I think that they are just there to take the money out because last year I think they took $1.8 billion from Venezuela,” said Sires.
The Venezuelan economic disaster, Sires argued, could be used as U.S. leverage against Russia and Venezuela’s other foreign allies.
“Put pressure on Turkey. Put pressure on Russia. I’m sure they want things back, Russia, so there could be a deal cut there somewhere,” he said.
But not all lawmakers share that view.
Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), who was in the meeting with Pelosi and Guaidó, downplayed the need to push back against Russian influence in Venezuela.
“There’s clearly a Russian presence in Miraflores, in the presidential palace. And we know Russia is kind of like a frenemy. They’re not our ally, but they’re not our enemy, and we’re not going to stop them from having some influence because they go where we’re not,” said Soto.
“Where we can be helpful is by making sure we’re building coalitions with Europe and democracies in South America because it’s in their best interest to have civility too,” he added.