New Rapprochement of Belarus with Cuba and Venezuela

By Siarhei Bohdan

Lukashenka and Chavez during Latin American Tour Photo: Reuters

Struggling with problems in its foreign policy towards the West and Russia, Belarusian government looks for partners elsewhere. Last month, top Belarusian officials visited several South American capitals. Lukashenka personally went to Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador. But despite various speculations and loud rhetoric, form dominates over substance in these relations.

He came for the third time to Caracas. Trade volumes with Venezuela rose from USD 6 million in 2006 to USD 1.3 billion in 2011. Cooperation with Venezuela is, indeed, a major issue for Belarusian foreign policy to be compared to friendship with China. But while relations with Beijing were established immediately after independence and gradually developed all these years, Belarusian interaction with Latin America remained somehow chaotic and sidelined till mid-2000s.

Fidel Castro in Khatyn

Since Soviet times Belarus  has continued to cooperate with Cuba. On a rare occasion of direct international contact with Soviet Belarus, Fidel Castro came to Minsk in 1972, and in 1978 the leader of Soviet Belarus Piatro Masherau paid a visit to Havana. No wonder, the first Belarusian mission in Latin America opened in Cuba. Nevertheless, even decade-long links did not prevent recession in relations since early 1990s. Cuba simply did not have money.

For a while Minsk developed relations with Peru then under authoritarian president Alberto Fujimori. Belarus could sell Fujimori some weapons, yet the cooperation lasted only a few years and came to a halt by 2000s when Fujimori had been ousted.

Then, the Belarusian government discovered a completely new partner – Venezuela. Actually, in this case the interest was mutual. Belarus needed new markets to earn money and diversify its economic links. New Venezuelan leadership sought know-how and technologies for rapid modernisation which had been once achieved in Soviet Belarus.

Moreover, the wishes and opportunities corresponded well with one another. Oil-rich Venezuela had money – unlike some of Belarus' other friends like Cuba or Nicaragua – and needed rather simple commodities, equipment and technologies which Belarus actually could supply. And it does not matter that Belarusian and Venezuelan leaders have different visions of what they are doing. While Chavez solemnly proclaimed, "In recent years we have built up not merely a strategic union yet brotherhood,” Lukashenka preferred to elaborate on the mundane issue of diversification of Venezuelan economy.

Are They Friends Against the West

The opposition in both countries speculated a lot about ideological foundations of such alliance. Yet, the Belarusian regime has no ideological backbone at all. Though Minsk repeated some ideological mantras about “besieged Venezuela” - avoiding explicit anti-American rhetoric – the Belarusian government refused to really engage in ideological and geopolitical alliances of Hugo Chavez.

Speaking in late June on Venezuelan TV about foundations of bilateral relations Lukashenka unwillingly admitted the ambivalence of their situation. "With Chavez, we are people of the same ideology. Those who struggle against us, follow another ideology. But this is not an issue of ideology. Here we have an economic issue!"

Moreover, allegedly “left-wing” Lukashenka failed to build relationships with proven leftist leaders like that of Brazil and Argentina. Relations with Ecuador and Bolivia have been pursued only after Chavez made it clear that cared about them. At the same time, Minsk had tried to develop relations with Columbia, an old nemesis of Chavez and a symbol of a pro-American regime in the region.

In May the deputy foreign minister Siarhei Aleinik of Belarus in Havana exchanged “opinions about the tendencies in development of post-Soviet states and trends in Latin America” with his counterparts. Together with Cuban foreign minister, they “studied the key aspects of development of political dialogue between Belarus and Cuba.” But there are no reason to argue that such issues were somehow interesting for Minsk, as they look much more as a lip service. Official Belarusian reports rarely mention such topics at all, focusing instead on economic issues.

New Horizons – Ecuador and Bolivia

However, such details remained largely unnoticed by many analysts and critics of the Belarusian regime. The murky business deals of Lukashenka and Chavez caused suspicion in the West and East. When in 2010, against the background of a new tension between Belarus and Russia, Chavez started shipping oil to Belarus, it embarrassed Moscow which used its powerful spin capacity  to discredit the idea.

Through Venezuela, the Belarusian government rather successfully attempts to establish links with other Latin American nations. Actually, Chavez could revive relations between Belarus and Cuba. During the recent visit Belarusian ruler admitted: "As part of this trip, according to our and Chavez' plan, I intend to visit Cuba. And I am going to conduct dialogue on cooperation between our  three nations: Belarus, Venezuela and Cuba. It should be mentioned that Chavez has done a lot to make my visit to Cuba possible.” Of course, the issue at stake is Venezuela's paying for Belarusian goods and services delivered to Cuba.

It might be different with other countries where Belarus needs even simple mediation to establish links to ruling and business elite. Such links provides Venezuela and it helps in promoting Belarusian goods and services on the distant continent. Commenting on his trip to Ecuador, Lukashenka said, “we shall talk about trilateral cooperation: Ecuador-Venezuela-Belarus». Moreover, "We are studying a series of projects on other directions of cooperation – Nicaragua, other Caribbean states. In the past, Hugo Chavez has done very much to help us open up a dialogue with Brazil, Argentina and Chile.”

Belarusian Exports: Beyond Potash

So far Belarusian exports to the region has been primarily fertilisers. Due to these commodities – mainly potash-based – always being in demand throughout the world, trade with Brazil has been constantly making Belarus hundreds of millions of US dollars. But it poses very hard questions before the nation as such a reliance on non-sophisticated mineral products with minimal added value threatens the sustainability of its development.

In early 2000s, Belarusian trade with Venezuela followed the same pattern. Yet, the close cooperation between the countries enabled Belarus to diversify products it exported to Venezuela. Now, Belarus sells significant quantities of machinery and equipment, as well as undertakes construction projects for residential buildings and industry. That is apparently considered by Belarusian government as a promising model in relations with other Latin American nations.

In reality, cooperation with Latin America can be profitable, but these profits will never really compensate for the long-term troubles in relations with Western countries, and even less with Russia. After all, in a very successful 2010, Venezuela's share of Belarusian foreign trade made up just 2.5%.

Lukashenka Like Genosse Honecker

Speculations of both the regime and the Belarusian opposition about cooperation with Venezuela and other Latin American nations are often inflated. They miss the evident point of Belarus being located geographically and historically between Russia and Europe and integrated into their respective economic structures. Chavez and Lukashenka can neither carry out global projects as official propaganda argues, nor conspire against America as its opponents reiterate.

Discussing the essence of Belarusian regime requires distinguishing between the rhetoric and the reality. Lukashenka's policy in the Third World, including in Latin America, has nothing to do with ideology. He will never help anyone without good pay, much less risk to mess with the West – even for money. His government will never send its people to fight for any kind of cause like Castro's did when he dispatched his troops to fight for Marxist movements in Africa in 1980s.

To describe Lukashenka's line, the model of Eastern Germany's policy in the developing world is much more suitable. The government of German Democratic Republic just kept selling anything it could. It spoke a great deal about helping Angola, yet delivered ten times more to Iraq which was undermining Communist movements at that time. The reason was simple – money.

Belarus Digest