Venezuela has the biggest reserves of crude oil in the world. Yet, almost inexplicably, it is not a burgeoning place of luxury with sky scrapers popping out of the earth like mushrooms as one would imagine from an oil-fueled economy reminiscent of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
by David Salazar Marcano
All of a sudden, the international spotlight has fallen on Venezuela as it has unexpectedly become a country with two presidents, both accusing each other of being illegitimate. On the one side there is Nicolás Maduro, the designated successor of Hugo Chavez, after Chavez’s death in 2013, and the current leader of the United Socialist Party (PSUV), which has now effectively been in power for the past 20 years. On the other hand, there is Juan Guaidó, the recently appointed young leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly, which is a legislative body composed of representatives from each state who are directly elected in general elections by the Venezuelan people.
Last Wednesday 23rd of January, in front of a large crowd of people gathered in the capital city of Caracas, Guaidó declared that Maduro is not the legitimate president of Venezuela accusing the presidential elections of being rigged and took over the role of president of a transitional government with the support of the National Assembly and referring to the Venezuelan Constitution.
This move has gathered significant international support, particularly in North and South America, with most countries recognising Guaidó as the official president of Venezuela. Belgium, along with the rest of the European Union, has also questioned the legitimacy of Maduro’s election and called for another presidential election as stated by the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders via twitter. In addition, French President Emmanuel Macron also tweeted, along with other European leaders, that if an election is not proposed by the beginning of February, the EU might recognise Guaidó as the only legitimate president.
However, Maduro has not completely lost international support from countries such as Russia, China and Turkey. Russia and Venezuela, in particular, have accused the US of trying to mount a coup d’état. Therefore, Maduro’s government has severed diplomatic relations with the US demanding that they recall their diplomats within 72 hours, a demand the US government would ignore since they claim Maduro has no genuine legal authority. Furthermore, at the United Nations Security Council, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza stated that Maduro’s government would not accept any deadlines from the EU on holding any elections. Instead, he dared the UK and Spain to hold elections themselves if they were so keen on having an election and told President Macron to focus instead on the yellow vest protests.
But, how did Venezuela even get into such a tricky situation?
Venezuela has the biggest reserves of crude oil in the world. Yet, almost inexplicably, it is not a burgeoning place of luxury with sky scrapers popping out like mushrooms, as one would imagine from an oil-fueled economy reminiscent of the UAE. On the contrary, Venezuela also tops the charts for having the highest inflation rate of any country in the world. It has suffered from a spiraling economic crisis in which the Bolívar, it's national currency, has basically lost its value and continues to free fall as we speak. As of November 2018, according to the National Assembly, inflation almost reached an incredible 1,300,000 % for the year. Such hyperinflation means that the price of many products increases by around 3 % on a daily basis. In contrast, the average inflation rate for Belgium for the whole year of 2018 was just around 2 %. Hence, in one day inflation in Venezuela is higher than in a whole year for Belgium. What is more, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted an inflation of 10 million percent for 2019.
Nevertheless, even if, as a Venezuelan, you would somehow manage to keep up with inflation and succeed to have enough money to afford a living, actually finding anything to spend your money on is yet another struggle. Basic necessities such as toilet paper, medicines, and other types of food are almost impossible to find. Large queues are often formed outside supermarkets very early in the morning which could last several hours just to buy the very few products available. As a result, 3 million Venezuelans, around 10% of the population, have fled the country, mostly to Colombia, with over 200,000 asylum-seekers reported in 2018 alone by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The economic crisis has been ongoing and worsening for several years now. The Venezuelan people have fought for a change of government with multiple national protests but to no avail. Maduro’s government has held tightly onto power having essentially absolute control of the Justice Courts and the Armed Forces. The only body of the government that is not under his control is the National Assembly, as majority of opposition representatives were elected for the first time in 2016. However, in 2017, Maduro unsuccessfully tried to regain control of the assembly when he stripped away the elected National Assembly of its powers by forming a new constituent assembly, composed mainly of members of his party. Furthermore, Maduro has gained control over the electoral body, which held the presidential elections in May 2018. Hence, unsurprisingly, Maduro was re-elected for a second term starting this year. As a result, the National Assembly declared the presidential elections invalid and called for the formation of a transitional government, due to what they viewed as a presidential void at the beginning of a new term. According to Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution, this government should be headed by the president of the National Assembly before a new president is elected by free and legitimate general elections. As the current president of the National Assembly, Juan Guiadó takes the position of Interim President of Venezuela.
What happens now?
It is very difficult to say how all this will conclude. The 23rd of January, the date set by Guaidó to declare himself as interim president, is of special significance to the Venezuelan people. The date marked the end of the country’s previous dictatorship in 1958. For some people, this symbolic action gives hope that Venezuela is on path towards democracy once again. Yet, Maduro’s government does not seem willing to give up its power that easily and the National Assembly has very limited power. Most importantly, the Armed Forces have declared their continued support for Maduro’s government. As a result, the National Assembly has recalled for people to protest against Maduro’s government, and offered amnesty to those who rebel. The amnesty law is particularly aimed at gaining the support of certain sections of the Armed Forces whose backing is essential for a successful change of government. With increased pressure, both nationally and internationally, one would hope that Maduro’s government would be forced to pave the way for a peaceful transition towards a new government and start the difficult task of setting the economy back on the right track. The alternatives are less adequate. Maduro could detain key figures of the opposition parties and continue to utilize the Armed Forces to repress any protests. In fact, according to recent reports, 35 people have already been killed by the Armed Forces in the latest protests since the start of 2019. Nevertheless, Trump has stated that “all options are on the table” in the event that Maduro takes serious action against the National Assembly, which raised the possibility of a US intervention. However, this fervent support from the Trump administration is a double-edged sword for the Venezuelan opposition as retaliation from Maduro’s government becomes more difficult but at the same time this raises fears world-wide due to the history of the US with such interventions. Consequently, although there may seem to be light at the end of the tunnel for the Venezuelan people, the path towards it is perilous and not yet guaranteed.