On January 23, 2019, Venezuela’s social, political, and economic problems came to a head when Juan Guiadó, the leader of the National Assembly (Venezuela’s legislature), declared himself president in a direct challenge to the power of President Nicolas Maduro. How did such a drastic political move come to be? More importantly, what does the way forward look like for Venezuelans now that they find themselves a nation divided?
Nicolas Maduro succeeded the famed Hugo Chávez as the President of Venezuela after the latter’s death in 2013. Maduro has perpetuated and expanded the socialist policies that Chávez implemented. Though initially popular, these policies are the source of the social, political, and economic woes from which Venezuela is now suffering. Citizens are starving because of food shortages. Medicine and personal hygiene products are in short supply. Water and electricity are inconsistent at best and nonexistent at worst. At the end of 2018, annual inflation was 80,000% . The C.I.A. estimates that four million Venezuelans have migrated since 2014 alone, fleeing the disastrous circumstances of their homeland . Discontent for these policies is widespread . In the face of waning support, Maduro has tightened his authoritarian grip over Venezuela. In August 2017 Maduro established the Constituent Assembly, a body formally tasked with writing a new constitution, though it was seen by most as an attempt to remove control from the National Assembly, which is controlled by one of the opposition parties. The Constituent Assembly quickly gave itself the power to write laws, essentially eliminating the National Assembly from the governing process.
Despite widespread discontent among the Venezuelan populace with the President and his policies, Maduro won re-election for his second six year term in May 2018. This election was highly controversial. Some presidential candidates from opposition parties were banned from running. Others were jailed, and some fled the country for fear of being jailed. Citing illegitimate proceedings, the National Assembly did not recognize the results of the election and declared Nicolas Maduro a “usurper,” which under Article 138 of the Venezuelan constitution means that he has no authority . Having established the absence of a President in Venezuela (because of Maduro’s illegitimacy, per Article 138) the National Assembly declared that Juan Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly, would act as the interim President while a new presidential election is organized. This is in accordance with Article 233, which states that the President of the National Assembly will take charge in the event that the President becomes “permanently unavailable” before assuming office. These actions are justified by Articles 333 and 350, which state that every citizen has responsibility to uphold the Constitution and “disown” any government that “violates democratic values” or “encroaches upon human rights” .
U.S. support for Guaidó was immediate; within a matter of minutes President Trump had recognized Guaidó as the interim president. Al Jazeera reports that some 64 other countries have pledged support, while only 50 have pledged support for Maduro . The United Nations itself continues to recognize representatives from the Maduro regime while emphasizing its role in delivering neutral humanitarian support .
According to the B.B.C., the support of the Venezuelan military will have a decisive effect on the outcome of the governmental showdown . On February 23, the opposition party tried to force the military’s hand by orchestrating the delivery of aid to the Venezuelan borders with Brazil and Colombia. Though this aid was but a drop in the bucket compared to the needs of Venezuela, it forced the National Guard troops assigned to protect the border (who had been ordered to prevent the shipments from entering the country) to decide between satisfying an obvious need of their people and obedience to Maduro. The trucks were stopped, and the troops even fired live rounds at protesters accompanying the supplies, killing four and injuring hundreds . Even though the aid did not reach those in need, the events of February 23 are widely considered a rhetorical win for Guaidó because of the negative effect they had on the image of the forces controlled by Maduro. Additionally, more than 60 National Guard troops defected into Colombia during the aid crisis . Though this is a far cry from the widespread support Guaidó needs from the military, it shows that there are individuals in Venezuela’s armed forces who are sympathetic to the opposition party’s cause.
Maduro and his regime have perpetrated horrendous crimes against the people of Venezuela. For years, they have denied citizens opportunities for development and success, while actively and violently suppressing anyone who disagrees with them. These recent clashes at the border are no departure from this norm. Maduro needs to be removed from power, not only for the violent nature of the actions taken against his own people, but because these actions represent a concerted effort to prevent lifesaving food and supplies from reaching Venezuelans who are suffering and dying.
But the forces that depose Maduro need to come from inside Venezuela, not outside of it. Indirect assistance from Colombia, Brazil, the United States, and other countries can help Venezuela find its feet again, but direct, physical involvement will almost certainly complicate Venezuela’s path to democracy. As we have seen in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Korea (to say nothing of the dozens of instances of U.S. intervention in other Central and South American countries), such involvement can be lengthy and messy.
The world watches anxiously as change appears to be on the horizon in Venezuela. For Venezuela’s own good, let us hope this change continues to happen from the inside out.
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