During the inauguration of the Venezuelan Embassy in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 2019, the Nicolás Maduro government declared its intentions to “expand the ties of friendship and cooperation between Caracas and Pyongyang.” While these allusions to a long-standing fraternity are constant in various official communiqués, both sides have chosen to gloss over certain uncomfortable facts as if they had selective amnesia. A careful analysis of Venezuelan-DPRK interactions seems to suggest that, rather than a case of “Socialist Solidarity” rooted in deep historical ties, what has really shaped this relationship has been the recent US efforts to isolate both countries.
The first exchanges between the DPRK and Venezuela involved left-wing parties seeking international support in their struggle against the government of Rómulo Betancourt. Influenced by the Cuban Revolution, the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) had just formed the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a guerrilla group that sought to end the governments of Betancourt and his successor Raúl Leoni. In the early 1960s, both Eduardo Gallegos Mancera, the PCV’s international relations secretary, and Héctor Rodríguez Bauza, a member of the Political Bureau of the PCV, visited Pyongyang. Rodríguez Bauza’s visit was productive for the FALN, as the DPRK promised 200 rifles.
In 1967 Elías Manuitt Camero, a representative of the FALN, traveled to Pyongyang and met with Kim Il Sung. There is evidence suggesting Manuitt Camero obtained weapons for the FALN during his trip; in a briefing to the New York Times, Richard N. Goodwin, an advisor to both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, revealed that in May 1967, Fidel Castro had resupplied the FALN with North Korean-made weapons. In Goodwin’s view, Castro sought to hinder the Soviet Union’s effort to establish bilateral relations with the Venezuelan government by this move.
Besides regular visits to Pyongyang, left-leaning Venezuelans supported the DPRK at various stages. According to an article in the Rodong Sinmun, the Venezuelan representative to the Tricontinental declared that Kim Il Sung’s revolutionary thought “became a decisive inspiration” for the peoples of the three continents in their struggle against US imperialism. Likewise, Manuitt Camero said that the achievements of the DPRK “confirmed to the peoples of Asia and Latin America that socialism and communism were possible.”
In December 1968, a strange episode linked North Korea with Cuba and Venezuela as the Rodong Sinmun showed solidarity with the crew of the Alecrín, a Cuban trawler that was captured by Venezuelan and American naval forces. According to the Venezuelan press, this “trawler” was loaded with guerrilla fighters and equipped with a powerful Soviet radar. The North Korean newspaper condemned the crimes of US imperial forces and the Leoni “puppet regime” and reported the heroic arrival of the crew in Havana.
The Imprisonment of Alí Lameda
From 1969 to 1974, relations between the DPRK and Venezuela were strained by the imprisonment of Alí Lameda, a Venezuelan poet and a member of the PCV. Lameda, along with the Frenchman Jacques Emmanuel Sédillot, worked for the Foreign Languages Press Department of the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Pyongyang. Both were critical of the propaganda works they had to translate, and reported to their superiors that it was difficult for their target audience to believe in the deeds of the North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung—for example, the preposterous claim that Kim in his youth marched 80,000 kilometers in pursuit of Japanese forces, as this equals twice the circumference of the Earth.
Unbeknownst to him, the Ministry of Social Security (the predecessor of the Department of State Security) was recording his conversations. On September 27, 1967, a group of nine agents knocked on the door of Lameda’s house and informed him that he had been placed under arrest as an enemy of the DPRK. The Kafka-like trial ended with Lameda’s conviction on espionage charges, and he was sentenced to death. Shortly thereafter, Kim commuted his sentence to 20 years of hard labor.
During a state visit to Venezuela, Romanian President Nicolae Ceauşescu was asked by his Venezuelan counterpart to intercede on Lameda’s behalf. At the same time, International Amnesty exerted pressure by signing support for Lameda’s release. Thanks to these efforts, Lameda was released in 1974 after serving seven years. Reflecting on his arrest and imprisonment, Lameda assumed Cuba was behind it, since the PCV had abandoned the armed struggle. However, it must be considered that Sédillot and another colleague, the Chilean Eduardo Murillo, had no connections with the PCV and met the same fate. It is more likely that the foreigners were victims of their “unfortunate comments” and the paranoia that followed the Kapsan faction incident, which was later reinforced by the Pueblo crisis.
Establishment of Bilateral Relations and Continuous Support of Guerrilla Groups
In 1974, Venezuela and the DPRK established formal bilateral relations, presumably as part of the negotiations for the release of Lameda. At the same time, the DPRK continued to support subversive forces inside Venezuela. This dual-track approach illustrates the flexibility in North Korean foreign policy as it was able to maintain good relations with the ruling Democratic Action (AD) party, a national reformist party, a social democratic party (MAS), an Albanian-inspired anti-revisionist party (Red Flag), the traditional left (PCV) and supporters of the armed struggle (FALN, PRV).
In 1976, a Venezuelan Committee for Reunification of Korea was established. Its president, Marxist philosopher José Rafael (J.R.) Núñez Tenorio and his wife visited Pyongyang and met with Kim Il Sung in 1980. J.R. Nuñez’s ties with the DPRK allowed Venezuelan philosophy students from the Central University to take part in exchange activities at the North Korean Academy of Philosophy. These activities were not limited to the Central University, as representatives from the University of Andes and the University of Carabobo also traveled to Pyongyang during the 1980s.
The DPRK and the Bolivarian Revolution
The election of Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela in 1998 marked the starting point of the Bolivarian Revolution. Although Chávez’s presidency was characterized by a strong anti-US policy, Venezuela did not immediately align itself with the DPRK. On the contrary, after the 2006 North Korean nuclear test, Nicolás Maduro, then the Venezuelan foreign minister, said that his government opposed any such test: “We condemn all nuclear tests because they are immensely damaging to the environment and to life.”
However, several clashes with the US government pushed Venezuela in the direction of the DPRK: First, Chavez’s opposition to US efforts to isolate countries that support terrorism; second, the Venezuelan president’s friendship with Fidel Castro and its aid relationships with Cuba, which undermined US efforts to isolate the island; third, the establishment of diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Iran and Venezuela’s defense of Iran’s right to civilian nuclear energy; and, finally, the economic and nonproliferation sanctions imposed by the US on Venezuela, which have increased in scope after President Nicolás Maduro succeeded Hugo Chavez in 2013.
Growing tension between Venezuela and the US led to the expulsion of three American diplomats who were accused of training student organizations to promote violence in 2014. This episode provided an opportunity for North Korea to reach out to Venezuela. The DPRK’s ambassador to Cuba and nonresident ambassador to Venezuela, Jon Yong Jin, congratulated the Venezuelan president for taking this step and rejected the “interventionist policy led by the United States through its embassies.” Taking advantage of this, the DPRK opened an embassy in Venezuela in 2015.
In 2018, accusations that Maduro manipulated election results led to the Trump administration’s decision to tighten sanctions on Venezuela. This move brought Venezuela and the DPRK even closer together, as the two countries became part of a newer “Axis of Evil.” In the same year, Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea, visited Venezuela and met with President Maduro. As ties between the two countries developed further, the United Nations intervened and warned that Venezuela was violating the sanctions on North Korea and investigated a military agreement between both nations.
In 2019 Venezuela opened its embassy in Pyongyang, becoming the third Latin American country with a presence north of the 38th parallel, just after Cuba and Brazil.
Venezuela’s ties with North Korea have a long history. There is little doubt that ideological affinity for leftist and socialist causes helped to cement the relationship. Nonetheless, while the Venezuelan-DPRK solidarity movement of the 1970s and 1980s was led by veterans of guerrilla warfare, the influence of this legacy has waned. Lameda’s case illustrates how Venezuelan politicians were willing to overlook his ordeal; in fact, his case has been recently taken up by Maduro’s opposition after the announcement of rapprochement between Venezuela and the DPRK. Likewise, the DPRK has shown its pragmatism by reaching out to Nicolás Maduro after he publicly condemned its nuclear tests. The DPRK and Venezuela share a past that neither side wants to be remembered. Their troubled history suggests that pragmatism rather than a long-standing ideological fraternity has defined this bilateral relationship and that the key drivers of Venezuelan-DPRK ties are both US sanctions and Maduro’s ideological need to reinforce its anti-imperialist stance.
Moe (William David) Taylor, “North Korea and the Latin American Revolution, 1959-1970,” (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of British Columbia, 2020), 112, https://doi.org/10.14288/1.0388738.
All translations from Korean and Spanish are provided by the author. See: “김일성동지께서 베네수엘라민족해방전선 위원장을 만나셨다,” Rodong Sinmun, May 11, 1967, 1.
Taylor, 112. See also Che Guevara and the FBI: U.S. Political Police Dossier on the Latin American Revolutionary, ed. Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith (Melbourne; New York City; Chicago: Ocean Press, 1997): 209.
“김일성동지의 철저한 혁명사상은 오늘날 3대륙인민들의 반제투쟁에서 결정적인 고무와 거대한 힘으로 되고 있다 3대륙인민단결기구 베네수엘라 대표 담화 발표,” Rodong Sinmun, August 25, 1968, 1.
“아세아, 아프리카, 라틴아메리카 인민들은 조선인민의 성과에서 사회주의와 공산주의 건설이 완전히 가능하다는 것을 확신하고 있다 베네수엘라민족해방 엘리아쓰 마누이뜨 까메로의 연설,” Rodong Sinmun, September 9, 1968, 9.
See: “꾸바사회계에서 평화적어선 «알레끄린»호를 비법적으로 랍치한 미제와 베네수엘라 레오니괴뢰 정권의 해적행위를 계속 단죄,” Rodong Sinmun, December 3, 1968, 4; and “꾸바어선 «알레끄린»호가 미제와 그 주구 베네수엘라 반동들의 해적행위를 반대하여 끝까지 싸우고 아바나에 도착하였다,” Rodong Sinmun, January 3, 1969, 4.
The Kapsan faction incident was a failed attempt to undermine Kim Il Sung’s authority by a group of anti-Japanese guerrilla veterans who disagreed with Kim on the direction of the country’s economic policy and tried to promote one of its members, Pak Geum Chol (Kum-Chol), as his successor. The faction was purged in 1967. The Pueblo crisis began on January 23, 1968, when the North Koreans captured the US intelligence vessel USS Pueblo and held the crew hostage for eleven months.
See Taylor, 113-114; and Joseph S. Bermudez, Terrorism: The North Korean Connection (New York City: Crane, Russak & Company, 1990).
“조선통일지지베네수엘라위원회 결성모임 까라까스에사 성대히 진행,” Rodong Sinmun, June 13, 1976, 1.
“위대한 수령 김일성동지께서 조선통일지지베네수엘라위원회 위원장을 접견하시였다,” Rodong Sinmun, August 15, 1980, 1.
“위대한 수령 김일성동지께서 베네수엘라 안데스종합대학대표단을 접견하시였다,” Rodong Sinmun, October 14, 1982, 1.
“김일성종합대학교에서 베네수엘라 까라보보종합대학대표단을 환영하는 집회 진행,” Rodong Sinmun, April 23, 1985, 6.