In these early months of 2019, Venezuela is undergoing an unprecedented political crisis, calling into question the election of Hugo Chavez and the socialist power that’s been dominant since 1999. On the 23rd of January, when Nicolas Maduro was just beginning his second term as president, the opposition leader and head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, proclaimed himself interim president. Since then, this institutional crisis–one in which the military will likely play a key role–still hasn’t found a resolution, and the political instability it generates will add to the pre-existing economic and humanitarian emergencies.
To understand this crisis, we have to consider a number of factors: inflation, emigration, American sanctions, and a carbon-dependent economy. These issues then in turn allow us to better understand the varied reactions from around the world, and the resultant geopolitical issues. How are we going to characterize this complex and constantly shifting situation? As “simply” the end of a reign in Caracas? A conflict of a new Cold War? The answer is all but evident. Here’s some of the essential information, and several paths for reflection.
By Yann Figuiere and the editors of Le grand continent
Translated by Arthur Boyle
1. NICOLÁS MADURO CLAIMS THE PRESIDENCY OF THE REPUBLIC
This former bus-driver and syndicalist, educated at the Cuban Communist Party’s school for executives, occupied two vital posts during Hugo Chavez’s presidency: first, the president of the National Assembly (2005-2006), then, the Minister of Foreign Affairs (2006-2012). With Chavez’s death in 2013, he assumed the role of president, and was then elected with 50.6% of the vote (at a participation rate of 79.8%).
Then, in 2015, an opposed coalition saw large victories in the legislative elections. In 2017, faced with defiance from the legislative powers, Maduro created by decree a new, “Constituent” National Assembly, which the opposition claimed as “fraudulent.” Neither Assembly recognized the other, and the executive and legislative powers have been in open war ever since. Maduro was, however, reelected in May of 2018, after a notably chaotic campaign: candidatures were refused by the Electoral Committee, and the election was moved up at the last moment, destabilizing the opposition, which was boycotting them. The election recorded a historically low turnout of 46.07%.
2. …AND SO DOES JUAN GUIADÓ, CAUSING NATIONAL POLITICAL CRISIS
Juan Guaidó is 35 years old, and one of the founders of the center-right1 liberal party Voluntad Popular; founded in 2009 under the same ideological tenets of the 2007 student protests. He also served as an alternate deputy for the Latin-American Parliament2, and was elected as president of the National Assembly for one year, from January 2019 – 2020.
Following Maduro’s second-term inauguration on the 10th of January, Guaidó denounced the “usurped term,” and proclaimed himself interim president on the 23rd. He cited article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution, which confers interim executive power to the president of the National Assembly in the case of usurpation. As a response, the Maduro government forbid him to leave the country. Shortly afterwards he was arrested, then released an hour later.
3. THE CONTRAST BETWEEN NATIONAL AND REGIONAL REACTIONS
At the national level, Maduro firmly condemned Guaidó’s proclamation, which he considers a “coup sponsored by the United States.” The Venezuelan supreme court, the highest judicial branch in the country, is comprised of members faithful to the regime. It ordered a penal investigation into the members of Parliament, accusing them of seizing prerogatives that rightly belong to Maduro. The minister of defense, Vladimir Padrino, affirmed through Twitter that the army also rejected Guaidó’s self-proclamation.
At the regional level, the historic allies of Chavism (Cuba, Bolivia, Salvador, and Nicaragua) supported Maduro. Conversely, members of the Lima Group (created in 2017 to consider crisis-exit scenarios for Venezuela) declared their support for Guaidó: Brasil, Canada, Columbia, Chili, Argentina, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Honduras, Peru, Ecuador, and Paraguay. Mexico and Uruguay, which both opted for positions of non-interference, called for resolutions through dialogue.
4. WASHINGTON RECOGNIZES GUAIDÓ, MOSCOW SUPPORTS ITS ALLIE MADURO
A few minutes after his self-proclamation, Juan Guaidó received diplomatic recognition from the United States through an official communication. Maduro promptly ordered shutdown of diplomatic relations with the U.S.
On January 31st, the European parliament recognized Guiadó as interim president. This followed a vote on a non-binding resolution, which called for each member-country to adopt the same diplomatic position. In total, fifty states recognized the head of Venezuela’s opposition. As for the Vatican, Pope Francis declined to take a position, and called for a “just and peaceful solution” as fast as possible.
However, the Maduro regime held its traditional allies: Russia, China, Syria, Iran and Turkey (a NATO member). They described the situation as a “failed putsch,” and a product of American interference.
Finally, the UN remained neutral. The grand majority of its member-countries continue, de facto, to recognize the Maduro government.
5. AN ECONOMIC CRISIS, ABOVE ALL ELSE…
Venezuela shelters important gas and petroleum reserves, and is the world’s 11th largest petroleum producer. However, a strong inflationist trend occurred due to the money creation necessitated by the falling price of oil between 2014 and 2016. These losses combined with decreased petroleum exports (which had been falling steadily since 2013) to reach a breaking point in November of 2017: the largest “hyperinflation” of latin-american history. The IMF foresaw an inflation of 10,000,000% by the year 2019. In the summer of 2018, the government attempted to remedy the situation by replacing its currency, the Bolívar fuerte, with the Bolívar soberano, at the rate of 1 soberano for 1,000 fuerte. This situation greatly worsened the public debt of the country.
At the same time, all of the country’s economic indicators fell: the national GDP dropped by 18% in 2018, and unemployment was estimated at 38%, twice the rate of that at the beginning of 2015, and three times that of 2014.
All of these phenomena combined to create strong price increases at the same time as a drastic collapse of buying power.
6. …AGGRAVATED BY AMERICAN SANCTIONS
Venezuela’s economic situation is complicated by the sanctions against its national company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), which were announced by the American Treasury Department on the 28th of January. Before these sanctions, nearly 400,000 barrels crossed Venezuela each day, headed for refineries on America’s gulf coast, while 700,000 / day left for China and Russia, as part of the country’s debt-reimbursement contract. With the accounts of PDVSA (and its American subsidiary, Citgo) frozen, Venezuela’s petroleum sector reached a point of no-return.
7. A MIGRATORY CRISIS: MORE THAN 3 MILLION VENEZUELANS HAVE LEFT THE COUNTRY SINCE 2015
According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), more than three million Venezuelans have recently left the country, around 10% of the total population. Of that, 2.4 million are situated in Latin America and the Caribbean. Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chili, are privileged destinations, because of their dynamic economies. Unlike the migratory crisis in Honduras, which caused great concern in the US throughout last year’s midterm elections, Venezuela’s migration is barely felt, due to geographical distance more than anything else.
In border countries, uninterrupted migration flows have led to an upsurge in tensions. In order to stem violence between refugees and local populations, and to control the influx of Venezuelans, border controls have been reinforced in Peru and Brazil, including military presence.
8. A PUBLIC HEALTH SYSTEM DRAWING ITS LAST BREATHS
Venezuelan health statistics are difficult to confirm with any high degree of certainty, because the Minister of Health stopped publishing all indicators in 2015, but we can largely trust those from specialized NGOs. A substantial increase in infant and maternal mortality, as well as widespread malnutrition (according to Cáritas Venezuela, in July of 2018, 13.5% of children under the age of five were affected by it) is placing massive financial strain on the health system, which is threatening to collapse. The widespread dearth of medications has also resulted in a return of and increase in epidemics (measles, malaria, tuberculosis, etc.).
9. ARE THERE PATHS TO RESOLUTION?
The Maduro government remains in power, and controls not only the judicial system, but also the petroleum industry, the National Electoral Council, and the high-command of the army. In a speech given to the National Assembly on the 15th of January, Juan Guaidó promised amnesty to the army in an attempt to rally it to his cause. Though the army continues to support Maduro, Guaidó recently received support from the military attaché in Washington, José Luis Silva, as well as an Air Force general, Francisco Yanez.
From a national standpoint, it appears as though the fate of the country depends largely on its military’s position. However, a bloody purge of the opposition is not on the agenda–at least not for the moment–as Guaidó was released almost immediately after his arrest on the 13th of January. The regime almost certainly doesn’t feel comfortable enough to conduct a full-frontal attack.
On the international scene, the United States is sure to reinforce economic sanctions in order to paralyze the Maduro government. But it hasn’t yet rallied the rest of the international community to its cause, as evidenced by a UN Security Council meeting held last January, which concluded with an official UN neutrality.
10. NEW ELECTIONS?
On Saturday February 2nd, in front of a crowd of partisans, Maduro declared himself in favor of holding early parliamentary elections, without providing further detail. Initially scheduled for 2020, these elections would disrupt the flow of 2019. This decision was broadly supported by the “Constituent Assembly,” which openly supports Maduro.
This announcement failed to satisfy European Union member countries, who had delivered an ultimatum to Maduro, calling him to organize a new presidential election within seven days. The deadline was February 3rd. As Maduro refused the ultimatum, the EU was forced to recognize Juan Guaidó as interim president. The evolution of the political situation thus remains uncertain, on both the national and international levels.
1. “Center-right” is used here with more international connotations, translating approximately to the American center-left: establishment democrats akin to Hillary Clinton. ↩
2. The Latin-American Parliament, also called Parlatino, is an interparlementary organism constituted of parliamentary members from all latin-american countries. Created in 1987, the Parlatino has many objectives, one of which is the peaceful resolution of conflicts. ↩