South Africa

DIPLOMATIC TIES

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro postpones state visit to South Africa

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro postpones state visit to South Africa
President of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Miguel Gutierrez)

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, said in a statement on Wednesday that the visit had been postponed to a date ‘to be mutually agreed by both countries through diplomatic channels’.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has mysteriously postponed his state visit to South Africa which was scheduled for next Tuesday, amid some controversy about South Africa hosting a leader widely regarded in the West and beyond as autocratic.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, said in a statement on Wednesday that the visit had been postponed to a date “to be mutually agreed by both countries through diplomatic channels”.

South African officials told Daily Maverick that Maduro had requested the postponement and Venezuela’s ambassador to South Africa, Mairin Moreno-Merida, confirmed that Maduro could not travel for the next few weeks. She declined to say why, but said it was not for health reasons.  She said Maduro would probably visit in February or March. This was being negotiated with the SA government.

It could be that the postponement is related to the negotiations which Maduro’s government had just begun with the opposition. On Saturday, the government and a large opposition coalition signed a social accord which seems to have broken the political stalemate that had gripped the country since the last elections in 2018. 

The US responded to the signing of the accord by lifting its ban on the major US company Chevron extracting oil in Venezuela, which is estimated to have the world’s largest oil reserves. 

These developments seem to be paving the way for Venezuela to come in from the cold where it has been since at least 2018. Venezuela’s political opposition had declared that Maduro’s self-proclaimed victory in the 2018 election was rigged and refused to recognise him as president, declaring opposition leader Juan Guaidó as acting president. Almost 60 countries, including the US, also recognised Guaidó rather than Maduro as Venezuela’s real leader, greatly isolating the country. 


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Western countries also imposed sanctions on Venezuela, adding to an economic and political crisis which has driven about seven million to flee to neighbouring countries — the largest migration of any country not at war, analysts say. 

Saturday’s accord focused on humanitarian aid and how to fix education, health, food security, flood response and electricity programmes. The government and the Unitary Platform of 17 political parties and NGOs also agreed to continue talks on ensuring that the presidential elections scheduled for 2024 would be free and fair.

Several commentators have assessed Russia’s war against Ukraine as one of the factors which led to the easing of tensions and the talks which led to the social accord. The fuel crisis sparked by the war has prompted the US and other governments to seek alternative sources of oil, and the social accord enabled the US to allow Chevron’s return to Venezuela.

Latin America expert Lyal White, the founder of Contextual Intelligence, noted that changes in the political environment inside Venezuela had also created conditions for the accord. He noted that Guaidó had lost favour with most of the opposition — in part, some say, because he failed to topple Maduro — so the opposition was looking for alternative leaders and strategies. 

White said it nevertheless remained “outrageous” that South Africa was looking to bestow on the autocrat Maduro the honour of a state visit, though not surprising as it was not unusual for the ANC government to host autocrats. 

“He’s not seen by anyone in the world, even those who support him, as a democrat.” But, he added, it was also clear that the political context of Venezuela was changing, both domestically and internationally.  

New left-leaning governments in South America were more sympathetic to Maduro and had been re-engaging with him. Most important of these was the new Colombian president, Gustavo Petro, who had restored diplomatic and other relations with his neighbour, which had been severed by the more conservative Colombian leadership after the disputed 2018 elections. 

White said he did not believe the ANC leadership had much understanding of Venezuelan or wider Latin American politics. Despite Ramaphosa’s office saying earlier that, “The state visit will solidify the already strong relations between South Africa and Venezuela … and consolidate concrete actions for mutual benefit”, White said closer ties did not make sense economically as there was virtually no commerce between the two countries.

“I think this is quite a strategic move for domestic politics because for some reason there is this sympathy in the ANC for Venezuela,” he said, suggesting Ramaphosa might have hoped the Maduro visit would bolster his credentials with the Triple Alliance’s left flank going into the ANC’s elective conference in December. 

White said the ANC government seemed indifferent to Maduro being a heavy-handed ruler and to the nefarious activities of government-controlled squads which violently harassed political opponents.

“But what’s been happening and which may not be acceptable to us, but the reality on the ground is, we’ve seen all the governments in Latin America start to engage with Venezuela again. They’re trying to bring it in out of the cold. 

“So there are two ways of looking at this:  be outright critical of it, or you can see some sort of silver lining. Maybe South Africa is trying some quiet diplomacy,” he added, though not entirely seriously. DM

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