Venezuela’s Maduro Regime Threatens Annexation of Guyanese Territory

Maduro pushed the December 3rd referendum, partially as a distraction from his abysmal poll numbers.

“The Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, ordered the immediate exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mines in the territory of Essequibo, an area in dispute with Guyana, just one day after the ‘yes’ victory was announced in the referendum that claimed sovereignty over the territory.”

In December 2023, the Maduro regime of Venezuela oversaw a referendum about a long-disputed region called the Essequibo, which represents more than two-thirds of neighboring Guyana’s territory.[i] The Essequibo region—roughly the size of the state of Florida—has been administered by Guyana for more than 100 years, according to an arbitral award in Paris in 1899. The Maduro regime announced that 95 percent of Venezuelans who voted approved all five questions on the referendum.  This included an explicit rejection of the recent jurisdiction granted to the International Court of Justice upon referral of the case by the UN’s Secretary General, as well as a commitment by the Venezuelan state to recover the territory by all means necessary “within the law.”[ii] Accordingly, the first excerpted article from Chilean news outlet La Nación reported that Maduro announced the creation of a new Venezuelan state called Guayana Esequiba, constituted by the territory of Essequibo. Maduro followed the announcement by encouraging state-owned enterprises to exploit the natural resources of the Essequibo area, as well as a small mobilization of troops and equipment near the border.[iii] According to La Nación, this has given rise to the possibility of inter-state conflict, a rare worry in Latin America.  However, many countries in the region, as well as Venezuela’s political opposition, have interpreted Maduro’s threats to annex the Essequibo as a domestic ploy aimed at distraction. In the excerpted article from Argentina’s Urgente24, Venezuelan opposition leaders claimed that the referendum was a nationalistic distraction. The outlet says that Maduro is looking for a change in narrative after the recent successes of the country’s opposition, including the election of María Corina Machado, as the unified opposition candidate to face Maduro. Distraction or not, Maduro’s actions have engendered an environment that is rife with possibilities for miscalculation as both sides stake out maximalist positions.[iv]


“Maduro propone ley que busca anexar esequibo a Venezuela: Pide explotar recursos naturales (Maduro proposes a law that seeks to annex Essequibo to Venezuela: He asks to exploit natural resources),” La Nación (a Chilean daily with over one hundred years reporting on the region), 6 December 2023.

The Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, ordered the immediate exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mines in the territory of Essequibo, an area in dispute with Guyana, just one day after the ‘yes’ victory was announced in the referendum that claimed sovereignty over the territory. Through a government act broadcast on radio and television, the president ordered that they immediately proceed ‘to grant operating licenses for the exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mines in the entire area of our Guayana Esequiba.’

“Referéndum y nueva ‘Guyana Esequiba:’ Maduro distrae (Referendum and new ‘Guyana Esequiba:’ Maduro distracts),” Urgente24 (an Argentine outlet with both opinion and news) 6 December 2023.

For her part, the Venezuelan presidential candidate María Corina Machado, who won the opposition primaries and who could dethrone Maduro if there is no fraud, spoke about it…and described it as a distraction from the success of the opposition primaries. ‘It is a way to distract attention from the monumental success that the primaries were and create cohesion in the different sectors of the ruling party around an element that awakens patriotic sentiment but that had a very low participation rate.’


[i] For more information and background on the manufactured crisis and Venezuela’s claims, see: Ryan C. Berg and Christopher Hernandez-Roy, “The Entirely Manufactured and Dangerous Crisis over the Essequibo,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 8 December 2023.

[ii] For more information on the referendum questions and the dispute itself, see: Julia Symmes Cobb, “Explainer: What is the border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana?,” Reuters, 6 December 2023.

[iii] For more information on troop and equipment deployments to the border with Guyana, bolstered with satellite imagery analysis, see: Christopher Hernandez-Roy et al., “Miscalculation and Escalation over the Essequibo: New Insights Into the Risks of Venezuela’s Compellence Strategy,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 9, 2024,

[iv] In response to the possibility of conflict, Brazil brought both parties to the table on the island nation of St. Vincent, negotiating the Argyle Declaration, which commits both sides to a peaceful resolution of the border dispute. However, the Maduro regime abrogates agreements frequently. For more information on the Argyle Declaration, see: “The Joint Declaration of Argyle for Dialogue and Peace between Guyana and Venezuela,” Government of Barbados, 14 December 2023.

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Image:  Maduro pushed the December 3rd referendum, partially as a distraction from his abysmal poll numbers.
Attribution: Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

Rising Violence Prompts Ecuador To Declare “Internal Armed Conflict”

Noboa, the youngest president in Ecuador’s history, faces a crisis of insecurity.

“President Daniel Noboa issued…an executive decree that reforms the current state of emergency and recognizes the existence of an ‘internal armed conflict.’”

Ecuador has been reeling from a dramatic increase in homicides over the past four years as gangs have evolved into transnational criminal organizations linked to Mexico’s drug cartels.[i]. The country’s homicide rate rose from 6.7 per 100,000 citizens in 2019 to an estimated 45 per 100,000 in 2023.[ii] In a recent 48-hour period, two notorious gang leaders escaped prison, gangs laid siege to the University of Guayaquil, and one group stormed a live news broadcast, televising the bedlam for nearly 20 minutes before cutting the transmission, reports center-left Argentine news outlet Clarín. In response to this spate of violence, the recently elected Noboa government declared a state of emergency. However, the continued threat posed by multiple criminal groups has led Noboa to dramatically increase the sense of urgency, declaring instead an “internal armed conflict.” This empowered the nation’s armed forces to enforce a 60-day curfew and restore domestic security, according to Ecuadorian digital news outlet Primicias. The decree enumerated nearly two dozen armed groups and classified them as domestic terrorist organizations, the outlet says. Noboa is only a few months into his term, following a presidential campaign that featured the assassination at the hands of criminal groups of Fernando Villavicencio, a popular anticorruption candidate.[iii] To complement his presidential decree, Noboa announced a package of increased measures, including the construction of additional maximum-security prisons and the expropriation of criminal assets. The effectiveness of these measures bears watching throughout 2024 to see if Ecuador follows down a similar path as El Salvador or continues to spiral down into criminality and violence.


“Súplicas de ‘no me maten’ y una granada en el bolsillo: así tomó en vivo un grupo narco el canal de televisión en Ecuador (Pleas of ‘don’t kill me’ and a grenade in the pocket: this is how a drug group took over a television channel in Ecuador live),” Clarín (Argentina’s oldest outlet that is generally considered center left), 9 January 2024.

An armed group stormed the live broadcast of a television channel in Ecuador, threatening those who were in charge of the programming with guns and weapons of war. There were also violent episodes at the University of Guayaquil and on commercial premises…the security forces stated only two hours after the assault that they were able to recover the taken buildings.

“Noboa declara conflicto armado interno y dispone la salida de militares (Noboa declares internal armed conflict and orders the departure of soldiers),” Primicias (a digital news outlet based in the capital, Quito) 9 January 2024. Daniel Noboa issued…an executive decree that reforms the current state of emergency and recognizes the existence of an ‘internal armed conflict.’ Therefore, it provides for the immediate mobilization and intervention of the Armed Forces and the Police in the national territory. The decree was issued minutes after armed attackers took over the TC Television facilities and broadcast live. This new decree establishes the identification of…organized crime groups as ‘terrorist organizations and belligerent non-state actors.’


[i] Previous governments, unable to stem the growth in criminal potency, have issued pleas to the international community for a “Plan Ecuador,” akin to the wide-ranging security assistance plan and social makeover that helped save Colombia from similar threats in the 1990s and 2000s. For more information, see: Ryan Berg “President Lasso Calls for ‘Plan Ecuador’ Amid Growing Security Concerns,” OE Watch, 12-2021.

[ii] For more information on rising homicide figures in Ecuador, see: “How Ecuador Became Latin America’s Deadliest Country,” The Economist, 10 January 2024.

[iii] For more on Villavicencio, see: Ryan Berg, “Presidential Candidate Assassination Shows New Depths of Ecuador’s Insecurity,” OE Watch, 09-2023.

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Image: Noboa, the youngest president in Ecuador’s history, faces a crisis of insecurity. Source:  
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Drug Trafficking a Prime Source of Financing for Venezuela’s Maduro Regime

The Venezuelan armed forces have become critical to the Maduro regime’s ability to move drugs around the world.

“Venezuela is currently an important bridge in global drug trafficking exports, from where between 250 and 350 metric tons per year leave, which has a street value of between 6 and 8 billion dollars.”

The Maduro regime in Venezuela has long maintained links to organized crime groups and drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).[i] However, a recent hack of documents from the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office has revealed the depths of the Maduro regime’s involvement with DTOs. According to the Argentine daily Infobae, the documents allege that Venezuelan Armed Forces are crucial to trafficking drugs through Venezuela. The outlet reports that they cooperate with Colombian guerrillas and are directly involved in the process of moving drugs, as opposed to passively permitting their passage and receiving bribes, as was the case in the past. The second excerpted article from Infobae states that the alleged center of these operations is Catatumbo, a borderland region between Colombia and Venezuela rich in coca production estimated to be 330 tons per year. The article paints a complex picture of rival criminal organizations from Mexico and Venezuela also occupying the same territory. The Maduro regime’s spiral into criminality will likely have meaningful impacts on the operational environment.[ii]Venezuelan Armed Forces’ increased role in Latin America’s drug trafficking operations will have spillover effects for most neighboring countries. At the same time, such activities are likely to deepen the Maduro regime’s staying power.


“Un informe reveló cómo el régimen de Maduro hizo del narcotráfico su principal fuente de financiamiento (A report revealed how the Maduro regime made drug trafficking its main source of financing),” Infobae (Argentine daily with excellent regional coverage), 7 November 2023.

Leaked documents from the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office, analyzed and verified through additional interviews and other independent reports, reveal that Venezuelan military personnel, in association with Colombian guerrillas, are directly involved in drug trafficking operations…The epicenter of this network is the mountainous region of Catatumbo, on the border with Venezuela, an area that has a high concentration of coca leaf plantations…More than 330 tons transited through the state of Zulia from the Catatumbo region last year alone, an alarming figure given that experts say that Catatumbo supplies only about 60% of the drugs entering Venezuela. The rest is transported by rivers in the plains region and the jungle region in the south of the country.

“Vínculos del Gobierno venezolano con el narcotráfico en la región del Catatumbo en Colombia revelan filtraciones de documentos de la Fiscalía (Links of the Venezuelan Government with drug trafficking in the Catatumbo region in Colombia revealed by leaks of documents from the Prosecutor’s Office),” Infobae (an Argentine daily with excellent coverage), 8 November 2023. In the department of Norte de Santander, there is also the presence of the Mexican cartels of Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation, along with the Venezuelan gang known as the Tren de Aragua… The investigation also highlighted the change in the roles of participation of the Venezuelan authorities, which have gone from being bribed by the drug cartels to leading illegal operations themselves, which represents an increase in the complexity and severity of the criminal operations.


[i] For information on the Maduro regime’s links to criminal groups, see: Moises Rendón, “Maduro’s Mafia State,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 31 October 2018.

[ii] For more information on how the Maduro regime uses criminal groups as an instrument of state power and power projection capability, see: Moises Rendón and Arianna Kohan, “Identifying and Responding to Criminal Threats from Venezuela,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 22 July 2019.

Image information:

Image: The Venezuelan armed forces have become critical to the Maduro regime’s ability to move drugs around the world.
Attribution: Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0 DEED

China Nears Completion of Large Port in Peru With Dual-Use Capabilities

A worker stands in front of a map depicting the massive Port of Chancay in Peru.

“Cosco Shipping seeks to improve China’s access to minerals from the mountains to the coast, and from there execute shipments through the port of Chancay.”

Weeks after the tenth anniversary of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is on schedule to inaugurate one of its biggest port development projects to date: the $3 billion Port of Chancay, just north of Lima, Peru. In recent years, Chinese-owned and operated deep-water ports around the world have captured the attention of many analysts for their dual-use potential, for both commercial and military purposes.[i] In the past, China has used its owned and operated ports as logistical points and ports of call for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).[ii] Chinese-owned and operated ports also offer the potential for China to track data on trade flows, which could open the door to economic coercion against the host countries as well as other third-party countries.

In response to rising questions about the Port of Chancay project, Peruvian media conglomerate RPP reports the Peruvian government maintains that the port is purely economic in nature and that the local population will be compensated for displacement and any environmental damage to the surrounding areas. The second excerpted article in the Peruvian energy and mining-focused news outlet Energiminas, says that the port will play an important role in helping China to solidify its dominant position in Latin America’s critical minerals supply chains.[iii] Peru also maintains that the port, built by Chinese state-owned enterprise Cosco Shipping, will save an average of 10 to 12 days on goods traveling to Asia from Latin America. Further, the Peruvian government has confirmed its commitment to the project and stated its goal is to leverage its role as host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 2024 to officially inaugurate the Port of Chancay. China has dozens of contracts to upgrade, build, and/or operate deep-water ports in the Western Hemisphere, an economic reality with implications for the region’s operational environment. Given China’s past use of deep-water ports for naval port calls, the Western Hemisphere may soon witness an uptick in the PLAN presence.


“Puerto de Chancay estaría listo para iniciar funcionamiento a fines de noviembre de 2024 (Port of Chancay would be ready to start operations at the end of November 2024),” RPP (Peruvian radio, television, and print media company located in Lima), 23 October 2023.

The port of Chancay would finally be inaugurated in November 2024 with cutting-edge technology…‘we hope to finish the port at the end of November 2024 and inaugurate it on that date taking advantage of the APEC Summit’…‘We have more than 3,000 families registered with a baseline of the conditions of their house and with a commitment letter from Cosco, responsible for solving any environmental damage,’ said an official with the company.

“Puerto de Chancay evalúa mejoras en acceso de inerals de sierra de Oyón a la costa, señala Gobierno Regional de Lima (Port of Chancay evaluates improvements in access of minerals from the Sierra de Oyón to the coast, says Regional Government of Lima),” Energiminas (Peruvian news outlet focused on the country’s energy and mining sectors) 18 October 2023.

The Regional Government of Lima indicated that the operator Cosco Shipping seeks to improve China’s access to minerals from the mountains to the coast, and from there execute shipments through the port of Chancay…For the Peruvian Ministry of Transport and Communications, this megaproject, led by the Chinese company Cosco Shipping, is key for international trade and will be a hub that will redistribute cargo from the countries of Chile, Ecuador and Colombia as well.


[i] For a useful dashboard of Chinese-owned and operated ports around the world, see: “Tracking China’s Control of Overseas Ports,” Council on Foreign Relations, 6 November 2023.

[ii] Researchers tracking Chinese port calls have found that the PLA Navy has called at about one-third of the nearly 100 Chinese owned and operated ports overseas. See: Jennifer Rice and Erik Robb, “The Origins of Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection,” CMSI China Maritime Report, no. 13 (February 2021).

[iii] For more information on China’s role in Latin America’s minerals exploration and production, see: Ryan C. Berg, “China Deepening Cooperation in Latin America’s Sizeable Lithium Sector,” OE Watch, 01-2023.

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Image: A worker stands in front of a map depicting the massive Port of Chancay in Peru.
Source : https :// :Puerto_Chancay_2.jpg
Attribution: Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

Maduro Regime Claims Victory Over Tren de Aragua Criminal Network

The aftermath of a deadly prison riot in Lara state, Venezuela in 2013.

“Its fugitive leader, “El Niño” Guerrero, benefited from complicity and even negotiated with the government to leave the prison before the security operation began, according to the NGO Venezuelan Prison Observatory.”

The Maduro regime in Venezuela recently conducted a military operation in the Tocorón prison, the power center of the transnational Tren de Aragua criminal network.[i] According to the excerpted article from the Argentine outlet Infobae, the regime uncovered a large stockpile of weapons and munitions at the prison, including anti-tank launchers, artillery rockets, and a cache of rifles and pistols. Additionally, the article reports that prisoners controlled a small town where family members lived, replete with amenities such as a pool, baseball stadium, and zoo. This level of criminal control is common in Venezuela, where the Maduro regime has relied on prison gang leaders, called “pranes,” to maintain a semblance of stability and control, and to reduce violent prison uprisings.[ii] In exchange, groups like the Tren de Aragua possess a high degree of autonomy within prison walls to continue criminal activity. In reasserting state control over the Tocorón prison, the Maduro regime claims to have defeated Tren de Aragua, as reported by Colombia’s center-left daily El Espectador. There are many reasons to doubt this claim notably, Tren de Aragua’s leader, Héctor Guerrero Flórez (alias “Niño Guerrero”), escaped before the raid with forewarning about an impending operation. Despite this, the Maduro regime’s military operation is significant for a few reasons. First, it allows the Maduro regime to claim that it is addressing the complaints of its neighbors in the region, who have openly fretted about the regional growth of the Tren de Aragua criminal network. Second, the operation could pay domestic dividends as the Maduro regime seeks to convince voters that it is tackling the country’s security crisis ahead of the anticipated elections in the latter half of 2024. Lastly, the regime’s recent operation serves as an important testing ground for the strength of its security forces, which it may resort to using to suppress any opposition mobilization in 2024.[iii]


“El sorprendente interior del penal de Tocorón, el centro de operaciones del Tren de Aragua en Venezuela (The surprising interior of the Tocorón prison, the operations center of the Tren de Aragua in Venezuela),” Infobae (Argentine outlet with excellent regional coverage), 27 September 2023.

More than 11,000 members of the security forces occupied the prison controlled by this gang that has spread its tentacles to several Latin American countries…There was tranquility, there was a swimming pool, a zoo…Its fugitive leader, “El Niño” Guerrero, benefited from complicity and even negotiated with the government to leave the prison before the security operation began, according to the NGO Venezuelan Prison Observatory.

“Gobierno de Maduro dice que el temido Tren de Aragua fue desmantelado ‘totalmente’ (Maduro’s government says that the feared Tren de Aragua was ‘completely’ dismantled),” El Espectador (Colombia’s center-left daily), 23 September 2023.

We have total control of this prison, of this penitentiary center, and, in addition to that, we have completely dismantled the self-proclaimed former Tren de Aragua. We have 88 people detained at this moment, providing information of interest, all members of that group, which was abandoned by those who led it,” said the Minister of the Interior of Venezuela, Remigio Ceballos, when presenting a balance of the operation…Ceballos denied that the government had negotiated with the leaders of this gang dedicated to, among other crimes, kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, and human trafficking.


[i] For more information on Tren de Aragua, its origin, and its historical evolution from railway construction union to criminal organization, see this excellent and comprehensive profile of the group; “Tren de Aragua,” InSight Crime, 12 May 2020.

[ii] The history of pranes, or leaders of prison gangs in Venezuela, is complex. For a condensed version of this history, see; Marie Metz, “Venezuelan Prisons and the Power of Pranes,” Foreign Policy Association blog, 15 October 2012.

[iii] For more information on the idea that the Maduro regime may be testing the security forces in anticipation of the 2024 election season, see; Ryan C. Berg and Henry Ziemer, “The Only Threat of Violence in Venezuela’s Opposition Primaries Comes from the Regime,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 17 October 2023.

Image Information:

Image: The aftermath of a deadly prison riot in Lara state, Venezuela in 2013.
Attribution: CC BY 2.0 DEED

China Pursues Increased Access To Critical South American Resources

Chilean President Gabriel Boric has focused extensively on the country’s lithium reserves as a source of global influence and for Chile’s development.

“We highly value the spirit of collaboration and shared growth in the spirit of building a new world order based on peace and harmony among peoples.”

China has viewed Latin America as an important source of critical minerals, such as lithium, copper, graphite, cobalt, and nickel for well over a decade.[i] The tenth anniversary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Beijing, with representatives from nearly 130 countries including Chile’s President Gabriel Boric and Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández, provided another occasion for China to make further advances in the competition for access to Latin America’s critical minerals, specifically, lithium. While Chile has the region’s most developed lithium mining industry, Argentina is developing the sector, and Bolivia, with the largest lithium reserves, has the least developed mining sector. Chile permits only a small number of mining companies to operate in the lithium industry, one of which is China’s state-owned Tianqi Lithium. Meanwhile, China’s mining companies have made inroads in Argentina’s lithium industry. Ganfeng Lithium, for example, is a majority stakeholder in Argentina’s Caucharí-Olaroz operation, which will soon be one of the world’s top lithium production mines.

As per the first excerpted article from the second-largest daily newspaper in Chile, La Tercera, while in Beijing, President Boric reiterated Chile’s commitment to China’s BRI and thanked President Xi Jinping for the “spirit of collaboration and shared growth.” Boric also pronounced Chile’s support for a multipolar world order and thanked China for its focus on development. Meanwhile, according to the second excerpted article from Spain’s largest daily, El País, Boric announced a multimillion-dollar investment by the Chinese company Tingaran in battery production in Chile. Boric’s trip to Beijing for the tenth anniversary of the BRI is significant because it demonstrates China’s steadfast focus on lithium as a key driver for future economic growth and global economic governance through reusable battery technology. Further, China’s investment in Chilean battery production represents the first investment in Chile’s nascent battery production potential. Moving up the lithium value chain is a stated goal of the country’s National Lithium Strategy released earlier in Boric’s administration. China has worked hard to position itself as Chile’s long-term economic partner of choice and showing that it is interested in building value chains beyond mineral extraction in the country will be key to that endeavor.


“Boric sostiene bilateral con Xi Jinping: ‘Valoramos mucho el espíritu de colaboración y crecimiento compartido’ (Boric maintains bilateral with Xi Jinping: ‘We highly value the spirit of collaboration and shared growth’),” La Tercera (second largest daily newspaper in Chile), 16 October 2023.

While visiting with Xi Jinping, Boric announced: ‘We maintain and are going to defend multilateral spaces and the principle of ‘one China,’ a premise that has been observed in an unrestricted manner by our country throughout the more than 50 years of bilateral relations. Furthermore, we highly value the spirit of collaboration and shared growth in the spirit of building a new world order based on peace and harmony among peoples.’ For his part, the Chinese president maintained that ‘relations between Chile and China are one of the best in the Latin American and Caribbean region. Chile is the pioneer of the Belt and Road in that region. China pays a lot of attention to relations with Chile.’

“Boric anuncia una millonaria tilized de una empresa china para fabricar baterías de litio en Chile (Boric announces a million-dollar investment by a Chinese company to manufacture lithium batteries in Chile),” El País (Spain’s largest daily with some of the best coverage in Latin America), 16 October 2023. The president of Chile…announced an investment of more than 250 million dollars by the Chinese group Tingaran, specialized in lithium, that will create hundreds of jobs…the group is engaged in the research and development, production and sales of lithium-ion battery cells applied to power systems of electric vehicles, including electric mining trucks, and other equipment. According to Boric, the most important thing is that ‘we are not going to limit ourselves only to extraction but we are going to create value chains and also transfer knowledge because one of the commitments that the company has made is to generate exchange programs so that Chilean professionals can travel to China and also train in the development of this industry. So we are going to be advancing the National Lithium Strategy with investments like these with which we are very happy.’


[i] For more information on China’s advance in important mining spaces such as the lithium industry, see: Ryan C. Berg and T. Andrew Sady-Kennedy, “South America’s Lithium Triangle: Opportunities for the Biden Administration,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 17 August 2021.

Image Information:

Image: Chilean President Gabriel Boric has focused extensively on the country’s lithium reserves as a source of global influence and for Chile’s development.
Source : https ://
Attribution: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED

Maduro, With Venezuelan Election Looming, Heads to China for Support

Former President Hugo Chávez receives a Chinese delegation. No Latin American leader traveled more to Beijing than Hugo Chávez during his presidency.

“China is Venezuela’s largest creditor…The restructuring of this enormous amount of money has been one of the headaches in relations between both countries.”

Upcoming elections and increasing pressure at home drove Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro to head to China in September 2023 to reignite relations. In the past, China was Venezuela’s greatest benefactor. During the years of President Hugo Chávez (1998-2013), Venezuela received over $60 billion in loans through a combination of sovereign lending, China’s policy banks, and large development projects.[i] However,  during Nicolás Maduro’s government (2013-present), Venezuela’s economy fell precipitously through a combination of mismanagement and corruption, causing China to withdraw much of its support in 2015 and 2016. Ever since, Maduro has struggled to return to China’s good graces and convince the Chinese Communist Party that he can be a good steward of Venezuela’s economy. While in China, Spanish daily El País reports Maduro had an agenda aimed at finding solutions to Venezuela’s grave economic crisis and rebuilding robust bilateral ties.

Maduro’s efforts were in vain. As one of Mexico’s main daily newspapers La Jornada states, the two partners signed dozens of agreements, but none of them involved the depth of investment Venezuela received during the Chávez years. Maduro’s trip failed to yield the kind of agreement he needed to reset his economy. The agreements reveal that China no longer sees Venezuela as its principal partner in Latin America to challenge the United States geopolitically. To assuage Maduro, China and Venezuela upgraded their bilateral ties to an “all weather relationship.” While this represents an upgrade in the hierarchy of China’s foreign relations, Maduro’s trip revealed the fundamental distrust that persists in Beijing about its ability to support Caracas monetarily and get a return on its investment.[ii] Lack of Chinese financial support and a presidential election likely upcoming in 2024 suggest Maduro will have to rely on greater repression to hold onto power. Additionally, Maduro’s largely empty-handed return from China may be seen by Russia as an opening to deepen their strategic ties to Venezuala, given Moscow’s desire to use Latin America as a counterpoint to U.S. policy in Europe, and specifically, support for Ukraine.[iii]


“Nicolás Maduro visita China para tratar de paliar la crisis económica de Venezuela (Nicolás Maduro visits China to try to alleviate the economic crisis in Venezuela),” El País (Spanish daily with excellent regional coverage of Latin America), 12 September 2023.

Maduro arrived with an eminently economic agenda and the intention of finding solutions to the crisis that is shaking the country… The intention is to strengthen ties that have been diluted in recent years and realign interests in an international theater polarized by the tense relationship between the United States and Beijing… China is Venezuela’s largest creditor, the Latin American country that has the largest debt with Beijing: since 2007, it has received about 60 billion dollars in Chinese state loans… The restructuring of this enormous amount of money has been one of the headaches in relations between both countries and was the driver behind Maduro’s last visit to Beijing in 2018.

“Relación China-Venezuela será elevada a su máximo nivel: Xi Jinping (China-Venezuela relationship will be raised to its highest level: Xi Jinping),” La Jornada (one of Mexico’s daily newspapers), 13 September 2023.  Chinese President Xi Jinping announced this Wednesday in a meeting with his counterpart Nicolás Maduro in Beijing the strengthening of relations with Venezuela, which will be raised to their highest level… “All weather relations” are the highest level of Chinese diplomatic relations. Only a handful of countries (Pakistan, Russia, Belarus) have this status.


[i] For more information about China’s role in supporting Hugo Chávez’s government, see: Stephen B. Kaplan and Michael A. Penfold, “China-Venezuela Economic Relations: Hedging Venezuelan Bets with Chinese Characteristics,” Wilson Center for International Scholars.

[ii] For additional analysis on the bind China finds itself in with Venezuela—too important to cut relations, yet too untrustworthy to deepen them—see: “The Future of Sino-Venezuelan Relationship: Make or Break?,” Harvard International Review, December 22, 2021.

[iii] For more information on how Russia views its relations with Latin America as a counterpoint to U.S. policy in Europe, see: Ryan C. Berg, “What Does Russia’s War in Ukraine Mean for Latin America and the Caribbean?,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 1, 2022.

Image Information:

Image: Former President Hugo Chávez receives a Chinese delegation. No Latin American leader traveled more to Beijing than Hugo Chávez during his presidency.
Source: https ://
Attribution: Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Presidential Candidate Assassination Shows New Depths of Ecuador’s Insecurity

Ecuadorian Presidential Candidate Fernando Villavicencio.

“He [Fernando Villavicencio] structured his campaign around the fight against mafias and drug trafficking. Days ago, the candidate said that he had been threatened with death by ‘one of the bosses of the Sinaloa Cartel.’”

Over the past three years, Ecuador has experienced a tremendous spike in violence led by the activities of transnational drug trafficking organizations often operating in collaboration with local gangs,[i] which has resulted in skyrocketing homicide rates. [ii] Underscoring the extent of the violence, one of the leading candidates in Ecuador’s snap presidential elections, Fernando Villavicencio, was assassinated in early August after a campaign rally in Quito. Villavicencio polled in the top tier of candidates poised to make the runoff round, with a message focused on anti-corruption efforts. Villavicencio was a journalist who rose to prominence uncovering and denouncing corruption in the Rafael Correa government, as well as links between organized crime and members of Correa’s party. According to the excerpted article from the Spanish daily El País, in addition to denouncing corruption, Villavicencio had spoken on the campaign trail about a comprehensive security plan for the country, including cracking down on organized crime and building maximum security prisons. Days before his assassination, Villavicencio alleged he had been threatened by a member of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel with an interest in Ecuador. The allegation furthered speculation about the role of Mexico’s top criminal organizations, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, in Ecuador’s downward spiral of criminality. Infobae, an Argentine outlet with excellent regional coverage, states the Ecuadorian investigation has been unable to link Mexican cartels to the crime. Instead, the outlet reports that the investigative unit has uncovered firmer connections between those it suspects are responsible and the local gang Los Lobos and the Puerto Rican transnational crime group the Latin Kings. The development signals the difficulty of confirming the nexus between the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels and local Ecuadorian gangs. It also indicates that high-level politicians may be a new target for Ecuador’s criminal violence.


“¿Quién era Fernando Villavicencio, el candidato presidencial asesinado en Ecuador?(Who was Fernando Villavicencio, the presidential candidate assassinated in Ecuador?),” El País (Spanish daily with excellent regional coverage), 10 August 2023. 

Among Villavicencio’s proposals were building ‘a very high security prison’ to lock up the most dangerous criminals, militarizing ports to control drug trafficking, and creating an anti-mafia unit that would pursue drug traffickers with foreign support…He structured his campaign around the fight against mafias and drug trafficking. Days ago, the candidate said that he had been threatened with death by ‘one of the bosses of the Sinaloa Cartel.’

“Asesinato de Fernando Villavicencio: investigan los vínculos del sicario con bandas criminales ecuatorianas (Murder of Fernando Villavicencio: investigating the hitman’s links with Ecuadorian criminal gangs),” Infobae (an Argentine outlet with excellent regional coverage), 20 September 2023. the investigations carried out on the gunman’s mobile phone, the hitman’s links with organized crime groups in the country are being investigated…According to the report, the hitman recruited the first six detainees in the case, all of whom are Colombians from Cali…Others suspected of involvement have been linked to Los Lobos gang and the Latin Kings.


[i] For more information on Ecuador’s security challenges and the government’s attempt to stem homicides, see: Ryan C. Berg, “President Lasso Calls for ‘Plan Ecuador’ Amid Growing Security Concerns,” OE Watch, December 2021.

[ii] For more information on the genesis of Ecuador’s violent crime and its impact on local politics, see: Will Freeman, “A Surge in Crime and Violence Has Ecuador Reeling,” World Politics Review, June 14, 2023.

Image Information:

Image: Ecuadorian Presidential Candidate Fernando Villavicencio.
Attribution: Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.0

Scandal Threatens Stability of Colombia’s First Leftist Government

Senator Armando Benedetti campaigns for Colombian President Gustavo Petro

They took her [the nanny] to the Casa de Nariño, that is, to the Presidential Palace, for the polygraphy part.

A scandal has engulfed the administration of Colombian President Gustavo Petro, threatening his reform agenda.[i] Petro’s campaign allegedly accepted illegal campaign contributions, including narcotics money from the Maduro regime in Venezuela. The scandal emerged when Colombia’s leading weekly magazine, Semana, reported on an incident of cash being stolen from the home of Petro’s chief of staff, Laura Sarabia. Sarabia suspected her nanny of the theft, subjecting her to a coerced polygraph test and illegally wiretapping her phone, according to the outlet. Simultaneously, Semana has a recording in which Armando Benedetti, former senator and, until recently, Colombia’s Ambassador to Venezuela, discusses breaching campaign finance limits with Laura Sarabia and hints at dirty money in the Petro campaign. According to the article in the Argentine newspaper Clarín, a lieutenant colonel who was part of the illegal wiretapping and polygraph scheme to recover the stolen money was found dead, fueling speculations of potential foul play, although the death has been ruled a suicide.

The allegations against Petro, exacerbated by the president’s own obfuscation, are likely to pose the most serious challenge that Petro’s government has faced. The inability to adequately counter these accusations will impact the government’s stability and could even lead to Petro’s impeachment. As a result of these accusations, it is likely that Petro’s planned reforms—such as his proposal for “total peace” with guerrilla groups and criminal organizations[ii]—will stall in the country’s congress.[iii]


“‘El presidente falta a la verdad:’ Fiscalía General: Duro choque con Petro por inspección judicial en caso de la exniñera de Laura Sarabia (“The president is not telling the truth:” Attorney General’s Office: Hard clash with Petro for judicial inspection in the case of Laura Sarabia’s ex-nanny),” Semana (Colombia’s leading weekly magazine), 30 May 2023. 

They took her [the nanny] to the Casa de Nariño, that is, to the Presidential Palace, for the polygraphy part… During the time she was there, they never gave her access to a lawyer, despite the fact that they were accusing her of having committed a crime, and they also kept her incommunicado…When they did the polygraph, the Police told her that she was a thief and that she should return the money. The boss said that if she spent part of the money that nothing happened, and that she should return the rest.

“Crece el escándalo por una supuesta trama de corrupción en Colombia y Gustavo Petro sale a defenderse (The scandal grows over an alleged corruption plot in Colombia and Gustavo Petro comes out to defend himself),” Clarín (largest Argentine newspaper with excellent regional coverage), 15 June 2023. 

The money stolen from Sarabia’s house, which gave rise to a scandal in the government, was allegedly Petro’s, there were five suitcases and 3,000 million pesos (about $718,000)…the scandal led to the resignation of Sarabia and the ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, who was the one who allegedly leaked what happened to the press…In another twist to the crisis, police lieutenant colonel Óscar Dávila, assigned to presidential security and involved in the interrogation and illegal interceptions of Meza [the nanny], was found dead.


[i] For more information on the scandal itself from one of Colombia’s most respected political scientists, see: Sergio Guzmán, “Gustavo Petro’s Biggest Crisis Yet,” Americas Quarterly, 5 June 2023.

[ii] OE Watch has covered Petro’s political and security reforms in several different articles. For example, see: Ryan Berg, “Colombia’s Gustavo Petro Promises New Approach to Security and Drugs,” OE Watch, 10-2022.

[iii] OE Watch has covered Petro’s plans for and the prospects of Total Peace extensively. For more information, see: Ryan Berg, “Colombia’s Congress Authorizes ‘Total Peace’ Negotiation With Guerrilla and Criminal Groups,” OE Watch, 1-2023,

Image Information:

Image:  Senator Armando Benedetti campaigns for Colombian President Gustavo Petro 
Attribution: CC-BY-SA 4.0

Iran’s Persistent and Growing Influence in Latin America

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivers a campaign speech.

“Our common position with these three countries is opposition to the hegemonic and unilateral system,” Raisi said.

Iran’s influence in the Western Hemisphere is often underestimated. Recent events have underscored that Iran is trying to grow its regional influence through a patient campaign that seeks to expand relations in authoritarian states in Latin America: namely, in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Additionally, observers saw some unexpected activity when Iranian warships made a port call in Brazil in March 2023,[i] and Iran engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity to solidify its Western Hemisphere presence in June 2023. Iran first sent its Foreign Minister and now President, Ebrahim Raisi, whose entourage was comprised of a “large political, economic, and scientific delegation,” aimed at signing strategic agreements with Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba according to Infobae, an Argentine outlet covering South America. Raisi spoke of a desire for a more multipolar world and denounced sanctions regimes at all three stops. Iran signed 19 strategic agreements to cooperate in various domains, most notably the oil industry during the trip to Venezuela reported in another article in Infobae. This cooperation is important because of how both countries use their cooperative agreements to flout international sanctions on their governments. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega supported the right of Iran to pursue more nuclear weapons, according to Infobae. Iran’s engagement in the Western Hemisphere is often overshadowed by the efforts of China and Russia. However, Iran has close relationships with the region’s three dictatorships and seeks to build beyond those relationships by diversifying its regional partners.[ii] Authoritarian regimes under pressure from the international community continue to view Iran’s friendship as a critical lifeline for survival.


“El presidente de Irán llegó a Venezuela, primera parada de su gira por Latinoamérica con visitas a regímenes aliados (The president of Iran arrived in Venezuela, the first stop on his tour of Latin America with visits to allied regimes),” Infobae (Argentine outlet with excellent regional coverage), 12 June 2023.

“Our common position with these three countries is opposition to the hegemonic and unilateral system,” Raisi said…The Iranian president defined relations with Caracas, Havana and Managua as ‘strategic’ and affirmed that this visit will mean ‘a turning point’ in the deepening of their ties…“We have important cooperation in the fields of defense, energy, oil, gas, refineries and the petrochemical sector,” Maduro said…On the trip to Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan president, defended Iran’s right to acquire nuclear weapons.

“El régimen de Irán pretende consolidar su influencia en la región: su presidente visitará Venezuela, Nicaragua y Cuba (The Iranian regime intends to consolidate its influence in the region: its president will visit Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba),” Infobae (an Argentine outlet with excellent regional coverage), 7 June 2023.

The trip will strengthen relations with the countries that Tehran considers ‘friends’ in economic, political and scientific matters…This is Raisi’s first trip to Latin America since he took office in August 2021…Last year Tehran and Havana agreed to strengthen their cooperation in technology and food security, during the visit to the Persian country of the Cuban deputy prime minister, Ricardo Cabrisas.


[i] For more information and context on this incident, please see: David Biller, “Iranian Warships in Rio de Janeiro Stirring Concern Abroad,” Associated Press, 2 March  2023,

[ii] Iran’s attempts to broaden its engagement in Latin America have not been uniformly successful. See, for instance, the debacle that ensued when a plane full of suspected IRGC members landed and was seized in Argentina. See: Ryan Berg, “Venezuela’s Mystery Plane Shows Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America,” OE Watch, 07-2022,

Image Information:

Image: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivers a campaign speech.
Attribution: Wikimedia, CC-BY 4.0