How Brazil is forfeiting the responsibility to build solutions for Venezuela

By Pedro Vormittag

[13 min read]

The Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last week, proves that one of the most complex human rights challenges of the 21st century unfolds in South America. Meanwhile, in Brazil — Venezuela’s most powerful neighbor and once a natural go-to country for leading peacebuilding negotiations — the Mission’s Report did not trigger diplomatic efforts of humanitarian aid or political intermediation for helping the Venezuelan people.

Instead, it triggered yet another sacrifice of Brazil’s national interest in the altar of Jair Bolsonaro’s ideological agenda. Undermining its unique role as a peace broker in the region, the Brazilian government chose to welcome the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the border state of Roraima, where the top diplomats of Brazil and the United States unleashed a series of rants against Venezuela. The political stunt —  part of Bolsonaro’s electoral strategy of placing foreign affairs as a battle in his cultural war against communism — is the latest blow, not only to Brazil’s ambitions of global leadership, but to the very agenda of overcoming authoritarianism in Venezuela.

The Fact-Finding Mission

UNHRC commissioned the Mission’s Report in 2019 after overwhelming pressure from the international human rights community demanding the UN’s involvement in further investigations of Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. The Report dove into evidence of thousands of potential crimes, pointing out “reasonable grounds to believe that violations of international human rights law have been committed, along with crimes under national and international criminal law.”

The conclusions bluntly report on torture techniques practiced by government’s intelligence and police forces between 2014 and 2018, such as “stress positions; asphyxiation with plastic bags, chemical substances or water; beatings; electric shocks; death threats; rape threats against either the victim and/or relatives; psychological torture including sensorial deprivation, constant lighting, and extreme cold; and forced nudity.”

One of its pivotal contributions is establishing legal grounds for institutional sanctions against crime perpetrators issued by either peer countries or international organizations, including the International Criminal Court. By delivering a list of 65 recommendations urging concrete legal action, the Report breaks ground by stating that human rights violations and crimes against humanity investigated by the Mission give rise to State and individual criminal responsibility, either under domestic or international criminal law.

Further breakthrough conclusions point to President Nicolás Maduro’s role in the humanitarian meltdown, with evidence suggesting that he, along with the Minister of People’s Power for Interior Relations, the Minister of Justice and Peace, and the Minister for Defence “ordered or contributed to the commission of the crimes documented in this report, and having the effective ability to do so, failed to take preventive and repressive measures.”

While Venezuela’s constitutional calamity had already been debunked in the international conversation by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the Report brings about the most robust documentation on human rights violations perpetrated by the Venezuelan government under Nicolás Maduro.

After over 84 human rights organizations worldwide issued a call on states at the UN Human Rights Council to renew and strengthen the mandate for another year, further investigation efforts will likely continue. In the face of the results gathered so far, the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela reaches a new level of international concern, as the Report officially brings the matter to the United Nations’ attention. 

The ranting aftermath

Just a few days after the Mission’s Report was published, the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Roraima, one of the Brazilian states in the Venezuelan border and the main gateway of refugees into Brazilian territory. On the record, the official reason for Pompeo’s visit was overseeing Operation Acolhida, a resettlement mission led by the Brazilian Army for welcoming refugees throughout the Brazil-Venezuela border. To the press, Pompeo called Nicolás Maduro “not only a leader who has destroyed his own country,” but also “a drug trafficker, transiting illicit drugs into the United States impacting Americans each and every day.”

Off the record, Pompeo’s diplomatic tour in South America is also part of the ongoing electoral dispute between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The Secretary’s visit draws the attention of American news coverage to the foreign policy debate, a topic some of Trump’s strategists believe to be a more strategic topic for the president’s campaign narrative, as well as a nod to the latino voters that despise chavismo in battleground states like Florida.

Pompeo’s presence and words in Roraima raised criticism towards Brazil’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ernesto Araujo. Brazilian House Speaker Rodrigo Maia slammed the meeting, saying that it “did not comply with good practices of international diplomacy” and “is an outrage to our [Brazil’s] traditions of autonomy and haughtiness.” Araujo responded to Maia’s critique in a press release bolstering the government’s grating rhetoric against Venezuela, endorsing Pompeo’s remarks made days before. Araujo’s attack against Maia was met with even more substantial criticism by various parts of Brazil’s foreign policy elite, among them six former Foreign Affairs Ministers, including former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Aiming at accruing legitimacy for the government’s scourging rhetoric, the Bolsonaro administration bungled a press release praising the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission Report. The statement eulogizes the UNHRC and the United Nations, once considered “a useless institution, a gathering of communists” by Jair Bolsonaro in the campaign trail in 2018.

On the other hand, earlier in August, Brazil’s foreign service was ordered to escalate tensions with Caracas by labeling the entire body of Venezuelan diplomats in Brazil as “personae non grata.” 

Weakening Brazil’s role

By hosting Washington’s defiance of Maduro within just a few kilometers from Venezuela’s border, Brazil forfeits its power to engineer pacific solutions as the impartial party of a political stalemate.

While Pompeo may have gotten what he came for, the quest for pacific solutions to Venezuela’s crisis did not harvest any gains from the US-Brazil provocation. Instead, all it accomplished was an almost irretrievable alienation of Brasília’s as the impartial broker of talks between Maduro’s regime, its opposition, and the international community. In doing so, the Roraima episode shifted Brazil’s role from one potential prominence in multilateral efforts to one of a useless supporting actor role in Washington’s monologue. 

Minister Ernesto Araujo’s complicity in Secretary Mike Pompeo’s electoral publicity stunt — the former Kansas Congressman will seek the GOP nomination for the presidency in 2024 — also hindered Brazil’s global clout as a reliable peacebuilding powerhouse, with consequences far beyond the Venezuelan issue. It set the precedent of a foreign diplomat welcomed in Brazilian territory with the deliberate agenda of unleashing an array of threats against a ravaged country that never showed hostility against Brazil.

By positioning Brazil as an interested party in the victory of a specific group within Venezuela’s political landscape, the case for Brazil’s aspiration to more significant global leadership gets harder to make. Legitimate agendas such as the Brazilian aspiration to a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council withers into skepticism, as the international community looks at Bolsonaro’s words and deeds and sees a country that squanders even its own national interest to please the most ill-advised foreign policy in the history of the United States.

At the same time, Bolsonaro’s voluntary subordination to Trump’s style and policies is far from ensuring the United States’ support for any of Brazil’s global leadership ambitions, as Washington’s key perception of recent Brazilian diplomacy is still one of unrest and amateurism, ever since Lula’s administration confusing attempt to broker a nuclear deal with Iran, in 2010.

In the meantime, the meltdown of Venezuelan democracy continues. At the behest of Maduro, the Supreme Court has replaced the leadership of the two largest opposition parties with Maduro loyalists. The Judges have also appointed a new National Electoral Council, which will schedule parliamentary elections on December 6,  2020 to elect new 277 representatives in the National Assembly, including 110 additional seats than the current legislative configuration.

After over 5 million refugees fled from Venezuela towards countries like Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Brazil, it seems beyond political dispute that the country’s current situation is a humanitarian tragedy coupled with an escalating dictatorship. 

An alternative agenda 

If Bolsonaro’s despise for smart diplomacy will only strengthen Maduro’s grip on power, what role should Brazil play in the international effort of addressing the Venezuelan issue?

It should be evident by now that a negotiated solution, headed by Venezuelans, is the best course of action. The ultimate goal should be to ensure free elections under rigorous international observation. However, as of now, it also seems clear that Maduro’s government sees no reason to engage the country in competitive elections, which would likely lead to the ouster of chavismo. The issue comes down to forcing Maduro’s regime to serious negotiation.

Simultaneously, the most crucial dimension of the Venezuelan crisis is the humanitarian tragedy, a baleful combination of the political and economic meltdowns. It is in the urgent agenda of helping Venezuelans with their most basic needs that Brazil is the most well-positioned nation to lead.

Brasília should lead the multilateral effort of providing humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan people, making the case to the international community that, as the humanitarian crisis continues, Maduro’s regime grows stronger, and the opposition agenda falls into deaf — and hungry — ears. On the other hand, as countries, the international donor community and international organizations prioritize the provision of humanitarian aid to Venezuelans, Maduro’s regime will inevitably see itself dealing with a powerful, new, and peaceful force in Venezuelan domestic politics, one that it does not control and cannot antagonize. 

Brazil’s vigorous agriculture and pharmaceutical facilities are well-positioned to provide significant inputs to the humanitarian aid package, with Venezuela’s military and oppositions as preferential partners in the logistic process of delivery. The economic leverage of the Brazilian consumer market in the region can also compel Brasília’s trade partners to engage in donations.

On a global level, the next step would focus on lobbying to acknowledge e Venezuelan refugee crisis as a world refugee crisis under the 1984 Cartagena Convention. On substantial international law grounds, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador should stress that donations must be directed not just towards Venezuelan territory, but especially to the surrounding regions that have been welcoming refugees, bolstering infrastructure, and turning a refugee crisis into a development opportunity.

As Maduro is compelled to the negotiation table, it would be crucial to demand concrete signs of good faith from the regime, such as the release of political prisoners, the restoration of their right to run for office, and organize political parties.

At the same time, Brazil should issue a call to action to the entire international financial system in order to strengthen anti-corruption measures on suspicious transactions from Venezuela’s government. As middle and low-ranking officials have their assets frozen, tensions in the heart of the regime would escalate, weakening Maduro’s leadership and fostering defections.

Rather than a fanbase for Donald Trump’s vision for Latin America, what the world — and Venezuela — need is Brazil’s soft-power as a broker of peace and a backbone for an international effort for humanitarian aid to Venezuelans.

Brasília must mobilize the 411 pages of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission as a call-to-action for enabling multilateralism as the key tactic for peacebuilding in South America. It is high time Brazil stepped up to its responsibility as a leading nation in multilateral arenas, dropping partisanship and taking the lead in the effort of ensuring peace in the region and democracy in Venezuela.

Pedro Vormittag is a Lemann Fellow and an International Dual-Degree MPA candidate at Columbia SIPA, currently also pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Management at FGV-EAESP, the Sao Paulo School of Business Administration of Fundação Getulio Vargas, Brazil. With a Bachelor of Laws Degree from the University of São Paulo, Pedro has worked at the Sao Paulo City Hall and at the São Paulo State Students Union (UEE-SP). He is also a member of the International Political Science Association (IPSA) and Brazil Talk.