Mahault Bernard is an Master’s student completing her MA in International Peace and Security. Her latest article offers an insight into the geopolitical implications of the escalating humanitarian and constitutional crisis facing Venezuela.
The images of Juan Guaido swearing himself in are striking. The 35-year-old leader of the opposition in Venezuela, Voluntad Popular, embodies hope, a way out of the economic crisis, a step towards democracy and the end of the Bolivarian revolutionary movement represented first by Chavez and now Maduro.
The economic and democratic crisis
Following the 2014 energy price crash and “years of mismanagement”, the Venezuelan economy, depending mainly on its oil production, collapsed during the same year. Today the country is facing galloping inflation, estimated at 10 000 000% in 2019. Simultaneously, the nation’s GDP decreased by 18% during 2018. Imports, the oil production and international currency reserves are all dropping. As a consequence, three million Venezuelans have left the country. Those that have remained are unable to access food and medicines and prospects for the future look grim. According to the UN, 63 days of minimum wages are needed today to buy a basic food basket, 1,300,000 people are undernourished, and child morality is rising. President Maduro is facing a serious legitimacy crisis as the government refuses to recognize, never mind deal with the humanitarian crisis gripping the Latin American country. Public anger has led to several months of demonstrations, some of which turned violent. Protests that took place last year were violently repressed and resulted in 125 deaths during 2018. The country has become a real dictatorship: opposition is suppressed, torture used, and journalists attacked.
Why were the demonstrations of this week successful?
A group of 27 members of the Bolivarian National Guard tried to take over a military base in Caracas on Monday 21 January. They were arrested but had time to post a video “saying they no longer recognized Maduro” as President of Venezuela. The demonstrations following this event took place on 23 January, day commemorating the end of the dictatorship in 1958 and were organized by the opposition. Amid these protests, Juan Guaidó, President of the National Assembly declared himself interim President on the basis of article 233 of the Constitution:
“The President of the Republic shall become permanently unavailable to serve by reason of any of the following events: death; resignation; removal from office by decision of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice; permanent physical or mental disability certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with the approval of the National Assembly; abandonment of his position, duly declared by the National Assembly; and recall by popular vote”.
This attempted seizure of the reins of government was immediately supported by the United States. Vice President Mike Pence declared on Tuesday, “Nicolas Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power. He has never won the presidency in a free and fair election and he has maintained his grip on power by imprisoning anyone who dares to oppose him. The US…recognizes the National Assembly as the last vestige of democracy in your country…it is the only body elected by you the people. As such, the US supports the courageous decision by JG the president of your national assembly to assert that body’s constitutional powers, declare Maduro a usurper and call for the establishment of a transitional government”. American assertions are correct. Yet the backing of the opposition by the US is seen by Maduro and his supporters as an attempt to interfere in Venezuelan domestic affairs interpret the events as a coup organized by the US. Following this, President Maduro ordered American diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours (but withdrew his ultimatum this weekend).
The constitutional crisis Venezuela is experiencing does not only divide opinion nationally, but internationally as well. Colombia, Brazil, Canada, Argentina and Paraguay decided to back up Guaido. The European Union, Mexico and Uruguay, called for the organization of new democratic elections. As for Russia, China and Turkey, they decided to stand for Maduro. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo stated at the UN Security Council meeting this weekend that each country had to pick a side on Venezuela: “Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem”. European Countries including Britain, France, Germany and Spain gave Maduro “an eight-day ultimatum to hold fresh election or they too would recognize Guaido”.
For Maduro’s supporters, Guaido is illegitimate. 6 million people voted for Maduro in ‘democratic’ elections whereas Guaido was ‘unknown’ before these events. If Maduro is unpopular, Guaido is even more so according to them. It is true that Guaido was self-proclaimed and Maduro elected but Guaido is not alone, he is the representative of the National Assembly, elected in December 2015. The National Assembly is therefore legitimate even if it was not recognized by Maduro. According to the political scientist Renée Fregosi, the opposition represents majority sentiment in Venezuela and should have the power.
What is next for Venezuela?
Juan Guaido called for further demonstrations on Wednesday 30th January and again on Saturday 2nd February, in a bid to force the hand of Maduro and his associates. These are aimed at putting pressure on the army. Juan Guaido should have collected 20 million dollars of humanitarian aid, but the army has to approve the entry of medicine and food to Venezuelan territory.
Guaido’s next steps depend on the actions of the army. It is essential for Guaido to have the army on his side to govern and secure power. Therefore, he has already begun a concerted campaign campaign to win over the military. Guaido gained the support of José Luis Silba, “Venezuela’s tops military envoy to the US” but a long battle remains before the military establishment is won over. With this in mind, the opposition started the ‘amnesty campaign’. ‘The law…offers amnesty but not impunity to citizens and soldiers dating back to 1999 — the start of Venezuela’s socialist revolution. However, it makes clear that ‘crimes against humanity, serious violations of human rights and war crimes’ are not covered’. The problem is that ‘the opposition has no way of enforcing the law’. And Venezuela’s courthouses are packed with Maduro supporters.
In addition, Maduro has the support of Russia and China. These two countries are Venezuela’s main creditors. Moreover, Russia delivers weapons to Maduro and has invested significantly in Venezuela’s oil production. Indeed, “Moscow is one of the biggest supporters of the Maduro government through financial aid, defence ties and investments in the country’s oil and gas sector”. The political crisis now threatens the oil industry that is still dependent on Venezuela. For the Financial Times, the market might not be able to cope with a fall of the Venezuelan industry and the loss of the Iran market, as the exemptions on trade, which permitted Iranian exports will come to an end this year.
The prospects for Venezuelan are uncertain. Some argue that the ‘most likely outcome is continued internal conflict which could ultimately slip into open fighting’. The danger of a civil war between Guaido and Maduro does exist and ‘Trump is committed to Mr Guaido’s victory’. The involvement of the US, whether economically or militarily, in such a conflict would be very likely. As the President stated in true Trumpesque style in 2017, ‘We have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away…Venezuela is not very far away’. To conclude, the army’s choice between Maduro and Guaido but also US and Russia’s next decisions regarding Venezuela have to be watched. As with Syria and Ukraine, Venezuela’s constitutional crisis has become a pawn in the game of power politics.