(Bloomberg) -- Until recently, it would have been unthinkable for a majority of Latin American countries to rally around U.S. President Donald Trump’s push for regime change in Caracas.
In a quick succession of statements, eleven Latin countries followed Trump’s lead to recognize Juan Guaido, the leader of Venezuela’s national assembly, as the country’s interim president. That’s a far cry from the traditional support for non-intervention and the suspicion with which Washington has been greeted in a region with a long history of U.S. intervention.
The shift stems in part from the receding "pink tide" of left-leaning governments which has given way to administrations eager for closer ties with the U.S., and also from the sheer scale of the tragedy in Venezuela, said Benjamin Gedan, a former South America director at the White House’s National Security Council during the Obama administration.
"This is an extraordinary development. Non-interventionism is almost an article of religious faith for Latin American governments," Gedan said. "This isn’t merely a question of applying democratic principles, this is a question of countries bearing the brunt of the negative consequences."
Around 1.6 million Venezuelans have fled their country since 2015, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, mainly to neighboring Latin American countries.
Not all governments in the region are on board. Mexico and Uruguay have called for those involved in the Venezuelan crisis to take steps to deescalate the situation and start negotiations. Meanwhile Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua have reiterated their support for the Maduro administration.
Even among those who recognize Guaido, there are limits to this new, more assertive foreign policy. On the same day that Brazil pledged to support "economically and politically" the transition to democracy in Venezuela, Vice-President Hamilton Mourao made a point of telling reporters that the country would not participate in any intervention.
Beyond a history of regional sovereignty, there are also practical reasons for such limitations. "In the long-run, Brazil has to live side-by-side with its neighbor," said Marcos Azambuja, adviser at the foreign policy think tank Cebri in Rio de Janeiro. "Brazil should have defended principles, not people in Venezuela."
Take the example of the Brazilian border state of Roraima, which relies on a Venezuelan hydroelectric plant for much of its power. If the Venezuelans decide to cut off the electricity supply, who will President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration negotiate with, the self-proclaimed President Guaido or the de facto leader Nicolas Maduro?
In a region that desperately requires fresh investment and technology but has been largely ignored by a U.S. administration busy with other global hot spots, some leaders are hoping political support now will generate business returns in the future.
"With Venezuela, they’ve found a way to Donald Trump’s heart. It’s a way to become relevant on the National Security Council," said Gedan.
With China supporting the incumbent Maduro, many will have to tread a fine line so as not to upset one of the region’s biggest clients of commodity exports. Then there’s the risk of getting sucked into a bloody conflict, said Celso Amorim, a former foreign and defense minister in Brazil.
"When you say you are going to give political and economic support to the self-declared government, this assistance could drag you into military action," he said.
In an interview with GloboNews on Thursday, Mourao suggested the possibility of offering Maduro and his team an "escape route" as a way of resolving the crisis, citing the tactics of a Brazilian army chief toward his Paraguayan enemy in the War of the Triple Alliance, a conflict which ended in 1870.
That historical precedent may not inspire Maduro. Solano Lopez, the Paraguayan leader who was allowed to escape, was subsequently hunted down and killed while his country was occupied.
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