The Venezuela–Guyana Dispute and Brazil’s Foreign Policy Ambitions

Playing the mediator: Brazilian President Lula da Silva with Guyanese President Irfaan Ali in January 2023. Image: Palácio do Planalto / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0 DEED

Brazil’s support for Guyana in its territorial dispute with Venezuela could tip the scales in favour of a peaceful settlement and help invigorate Brasília’s long-standing campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

In a referendum held on 3 December, Venezuelans voted in favour of their government’s claim to the Essequibo region, which comprises roughly two-thirds of neighbouring Guyana’s territory. Brazil did not ask Venezuela to cancel the vote, but President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's government has persistently criticised the stepped-up Venezuelan campaign for the Essequibo, and the Brazilian military has moved armoured vehicles and more troops to Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state bordering both Venezuela and Guyana. Meanwhile, the Brazilian government has dispatched its top foreign policy advisor and former foreign minister, Celso Amorim, to mediate and prevent a potential confrontation.

In a recent interview, Brazil’s President Lula revealed that he is speaking regularly over the phone with Guyana’s President Mohamed Irfaan Ali, and that Amorim has been to Caracas to talk to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro about Venezuela’s claim to the Essequibo region. According to Lula, the world and, in particular, South America, has no need for more turmoil, and he hopes both countries will exercise ‘common sense’ in their decisions.

Lula’s intervention came soon after Brazilian Ambassador to the UK Antônio Patriota publicly claimed that, given its non-violent history, Brazil has accumulated a certain ‘peace capital’ that puts it in a unique position to mediate conflicts. This kind of assertion is not new, especially if we take into consideration Brazil’s well-established advocacy for reform of the UN Security Council (UNSC), alongside countries like Germany, India and Japan – the so-called G4 seeking permanent seats on the UNSC. Indeed, this objective is one of the few points which Lula and his predecessor, former President Jair Bolsonaro, actually agree on.

The Broader Context

Handling the Venezuela–Guyana dispute also fits well with the Brazilian claim to leadership of the ‘Global South’. However, Brazil’s approach so far to the latter has been characterized as ‘low-cost’, without major commitments either to the UN itself or to any potential future peacekeeping missions (apart from Brazil taking the lead role in Haiti, which at the time sparked its own debates). For various reasons, Brazil usually has a hard time taking sides in conflicts, opting for ‘neutrality’ instead. In fact, the country’s own constitution asserts that its foreign policy should be guided by a ‘non-intervention’ principle.

Notwithstanding this neutral stance, Brazil has on a number of occasions tried – but thus far failed – to punch above its weight in the international arena, as most recently shown by its attempts to mediate the conflicts between Russia and Ukraine and between Israel and Hamas. When it comes to Venezuela and Guyana, though, the dispute is brewing right on the country’s border, and Brazil should be careful not to miss the opportunity to lead in promoting a non-violent resolution.

Maduro’s aggressive posture may be more about rallying his own citizens around the flag than any actual military action, but the risk of escalation remains and should not be dismissed

Still, this is tricky, given that Brazil’s left-wing political institutions – including President Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) – have long-standing ideological ties with the Venezuelan regime. The head of the PT, Gleisi Hoffmann, even travelled to Caracas in 2019 for the inauguration of Maduro’s controversial second term as president. These ideological ties have also underpinned past attempts to bolster regional integration, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), both of which have declined after political shifts in the region.

What Now?

In global terms, the dispute between Venezuela and Guyana may appear insignificant. Heavily forested, the Essequibo region is widely inaccessible and sparsely populated, posing major challenges for an invading Venezuelan army. The only road between Venezuela and Guyana goes through Brazil, which has already said it will not allow any movement of troops through its territory. In this light, Maduro’s aggressive posture may be more about rallying his own citizens around the flag than any actual military action, but the risk of escalation remains and should not be dismissed.

Also, even if Brazil succeeds in mediating a peaceful solution to the crisis, this act alone is unlikely to be decisive in bolstering the country’s candidacy for a permanent seat on the UNSC. Nonetheless, a failure to even address the issue – opting for ‘neutrality’, not taking sides, or allowing any sort of escalation on Brazil’s immediate border – may truly sink Lula’s hopes in that regard.

This is why, even if Lula has now adopted a ‘we shall see what happens’ approach to the dispute, Brazilian diplomacy – with or without the aid of the military – should be actively trying to solve this issue. Any aspirations for a more important role in a multipolar system and leadership of the ‘Global South’ may very well depend on it.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Rodrigo Albuquerque Pereira

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