Is the Venezuelan Crisis a Stone in BRICS Shoes?

The preparation of the next BRICS Summit in Brasilia in November 2019 faced several challenges, starting with the expectations about the ambiguous role that could play the host´s country President Jair Bolsonaro. The preparatory meeting of Foreign Ministers in Rio de Janeiro last Friday – with the attendance of Foreign Ministers Lavrov from Russia and Wang Yi from China – was expected to be a test for the commitment of the Brazilian government regarding its role as a host to the Summit and as a member of the group, particularly after its proclaimed position of alignment with Trump’s U.S. administration policies.

Doubts about the holding of the Summit were on the rise after Bolsonaro´s first months in office, but the clouds seem to be cleared during the recent group´s Heads of State meeting on the side at the G-20 Summit in Osaka. During this meeting, Bolsonaro announced his commitment to hold the Summit in Brasilia in November this year, and avoided the discussion of some sensible issues such as the Venezuelan crisis and his recognition of the interim appointed president Guaido, a position clearly at odds with Russia´s and China´s support of Maduro´s government.

The BRICS group is composed by the five major emerging countries - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -, which together represent about 42% of the population, 30% of the territory and 18% of the global trade. Despite persistent Western criticisms, the BRICS bloc shows an important progress since its creation in 2009. First of all, the group has established and developed a common agenda of more than thirty cooperation areas, including economy and finance; health; science, technology & innovation; security and business. Secondly, even since its creation, there was a debate about BRICS becoming an alternative to some of the existing global governance institutions such as the G-7 or an attempt to reform and to improve the existing global economic governance. In May 2019, at a conference in Washington, the group made evident its willingness and commitment to coordinate its actions with other institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, aiming to establish the group as an important player in global financial governance. Thirdly, it is important to note that the main economic driving forces within the group are represented by the growing economies of China and India, the Eurasian strategic convergence between Russia and China, and by the increasing – but difficult – coordination within the RIC (Russia, India, China) group (originally promoted by Russian Foreign Minister Evgeny Primakov). The RIC – as a political coordination force - had its first formal meeting of Head of States at the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires in 2018, and was followed by a second one at the G-20 Summit in Osaka in 2019. It is also important to note that the three members of RIC are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which prioritize, among other issues, regional stability and fighting terrorism in Eurasia. The trio – and the BRICS as a whole - could also contribute to creating a new world economic governance. Together, the RIC countries occupy over 19 percent of the global landmass and contribute to over 33 percent of global GDP. All three are nuclear powers and two of them, Russia and China, are permanent members of the UN Security Council, while India aspires to become one of them. With other Eurasian countries they are building a new gravitational pole that could counterbalance the United States and its allies on the world´s stage.

The 10th Summit of the group in Johannesburg in 2018 made an appeal to increase intra-bloc trade, showing that it was still below the expectations of its members. Trade between the BRICS represented, in 2002, an amount of 21,000 million euros, a figure that in 2012 already grow to 219,400 million euros. However, the group is still lagging behind its capabilities. Currently the economic driving force of the group is China which was benefiting from the globalization process to foster its own economic growth. The strategic convergence and closer ties between China and Russia in Eurasia have helped to significantly increase their trade exchange, particularly in the areas of finance and infrastructure, arms sales, energy trade and cooperation, and technology. The commercial exchange between Russia and India could rise to the level of 30,000 million dollars in the next three or four years, according to several sources. China and India are increasing their trade and financial cooperation. The accumulated investment of Chinese companies in India reached more than 8,000 million dollars, while India's investment in China grew 18.5 percent annually in the last three years. Trade of the BRICS members with South Africa seems to be still expanding, while China is Brazil’s main trading partner, accounting for 27% of its exports and 20% of its imports. However, the general performance of the intra-bloc trade shows that it is not growing as expected.

The key challenges for the BRICS are related to several issues. First of all, to increase the commitments of its members to broaden and to strengthen its currently weak institutional architecture and to increase intra-bloc cooperation and trade. Secondly, to work on the building of common approaches to deal with the changing world global governance and to contribute to its development and eventual reform. And thirdly, to integrate and address new issues in the group agenda, in accordance with the demands of its members. In this regard, the recent Brazil´s government proposal of focusing on the fight of terrorism and international crime as one of the main issues of the agenda for the next Summit in Brasilia, is in tune with the priorities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and of Russia, China and India as its most powerful members.

The Brasilia Summit in November is particularly challenging because of the contradictory declarations of President Bolsonaro and its strong alignment with Trump´s administration. A particularly contentious matter is the Venezuelan political, economic and humanitarian crisis which is affecting all the region and particularly its bordering countries – including Brazil - with a heavy flow of refugees and migrants. Threats of a potential military intervention by the United States are repeatedly announced. However, the Oslo-Barbados negotiations fostered by the Norwegian government between Maduro´s government and opposition seem to be endorsed both by Brazil and by Russia and China. Finally, a clue for understanding Bolsonaro´s shift towards a more committed and pragmatic approach to Brazil´s participation in BRICS is the pressure of the military sector in government against the more ideological stance fostered by his Minister of Foreign Affairs, a staunch nationalist and protectionist in economic and geopolitical matters. The Rio meeting was supposed to have an open agenda, but a discordant note was  Brazil´s foreign minister call to “hear Venezuelans’ cry for freedom” at the opening session, - sending a clear regional message from the perspective of the  Lima Group -, which was responded by Russian Minister Lavrov with an appeal to international law and the rejection of any external interference in Venezuelan matters. Ultimately, there was no mention of Venezuela in the agreed joint statement issued at the end of the Rio meeting, underscoring the discords within the group, but the issue will loom on the November Summit as the Lima Group of a dozen Latin American countries (including Brazil) and Canada, urged the world last Tuesday to push Caracas to hold new presidential elections.  At the present stage, the regional impact of the Venezuelan crisis seems to become a stumbling block for BRICS original aspiration of strengthening the group and promoting South-South cooperation and trade, and for Brazil´s future engagement with the group.                    

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.