01/2019 | Reading time: 7 minutes
Venezuela has been struggling with an increasingly grave economic, political, and institutional crisis for years, and opposing political forces are unable to find a way out. Meanwhile, there are many great powers with conflicting political agendas looking after their own interest in the country. However, last week, a step taken by opposition politician Juan Guaidó may yet stir things up; still, the possible outcomes of his action are very hard to predict.
On last Wednesday, 23 January, Juan Guaidó, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, declared himself an interim president. All this came two weeks after Nicolás Maduro, who had been president of the country since 2013, vowed on 10 January to continue his second 6-year mandate following his re-election last spring. It is well understood that the country’s economy is in ruins, due to bad economic decisions by Maduro and his political predecessor, Hugo Chávez, as well as the country’s high exposure to oil prices. The part of the Venezuelan society that feels dissatisfied with the present situation has long been expressing its displeasure in a number of ways: so far, from the 32-million-strong country, about two to three and a half million people have decided to flee abroad, and anti-government protests are a daily occurrence. So, the question emerges: Why did the opposition choose to take this radical step now, and what can each party expect?
To understand the present situation, it is important to remember that the country’s national assembly was last re-elected in 2015. With a 70% turnout, 56% of the votes went to the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD), a coalition hammered out by the opposition, while the forces supporting Maduro got only 41%.
The distribution of the 167 parliamentary chairs after the 2015 election (blue dots represent the chairs won by the opposition, red ones the chairs of Maduro’s supporters)
After the victory, the opposition agreed that it would rotate which party could occupy the presidency of the National Assembly every year. This is how Juan Guaidó could came to fill this position this year. As the opposition-dominated National Assembly has always been a thorn in Maduro’s side, he has been working on suppressing it since 2015: he first tried to consign power to the Supreme Court, filled with members loyal to his person, then, in the wake of international protest, to the Constituent Assembly set up by a Supreme Court decision. In similar fashion, at last year’s presidential election, MUD parties were not allowed to participate because of an earlier decision by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, several measures were taken in an attempt to undercut remaining opposition rivals. Small wonder the election was won by Maduro, then. As a consequence, he thinks he can rightfully argue that he had every legal basis to renew his mandate this year.
The interim president, Juan Guidó
Source: Wikipedia, author: Carlos García Soto, licence: public domain
Changes in the international backdrop may also have had a role in Guaido’s decision. Last year, a number of elections took place across Latin America, and their outcome was not necessarily favourable to Maduro’s regime, which is otherwise exposed to tough international pressure. In Colombia’s legislative and presidential elections, Gustavo Francisco Petro Urrego, accused by his opponents of wanting to copy Venezuelan Chavism, lost to the right-wing candidate, Iván Duque Márquez. Duque then called on President Trump and his European counterparts to put the squeeze on Maduro—although the former never treated the Venezuelan President with kid gloves anyway. Besides Colombia, last autumn, a major political shift also took place in Venezuela’s other heavyweight neighbour, Brazil: presidential elections were won by the right-wing Jair Messias Bolsonaro against the Workers’ Party candidate. In the first decade of the 2000s, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president enjoying considerable popular support thanks to his social reforms, was a close ally to Chávez and his system on an ideological basis. However, after last autumn’s elections, Maduro can no longer count on any support from Brazil: even though there are still several points in Bolsonaro’s foreign policy agenda to be nailed down, a political change in Venezuela seems to be a relatively stable cornerstone of his grand design. To achieve his goal, he would also exclude Venezuela from the South American organization Mercosul—although it was the Brazilian Workers’ Party that once helped Chavez in (nota bene, the latter party continues to stand alongside Maduro). Meanwhile, there was a strong leftist turn in Mexico, which also has major leverage in the region, and the new president, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, has eased his predecessor’s policy towards Venezuela and stands up for the regime in a handful of ways. However, it is important to bear in mind that Mexico—together with Argentina, Chile, and Peru, three countries that had censured the Venezuela regime for a while, as well as Brazil and eight other states from the region—remained member of the Lima Group (Grupo de Lima), which urges a peaceful solution to the present Venezuelan crisis. This suggests that Mexico is not expected to pull every string to save the current system.
Moreover, support from the Petrocaribe alliance, created by Chávez using the country’s vast oil reserves, and the associated ALBA–TCP (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América – Tratado de Comercio de los Pueblos, Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – Peoples’ Trade Treaty) seems to be melting away. A telling sign is that, although a joint statement against Venezuela had been hindered for a long time in the Organization of American States (drawing on help from Latin American and Caribbean states propped up by Venezuelan oil), following a first resolution in June 2018, a second resolution was also passed against Venezuela this January. While the first resolution only questioned the legitimacy of the presidential election process, now, the second claims that the organization does not recognize Maduro as a legitimate president. Mexico, following its new political agenda, has now taken an abstentious position—and while Barbados did the same, Haiti and Ecuador, went the other way and voted in favour of the resolution, even though in the past they had opted to abstain.
Therefore, by and large, there has been a negative shift in the international environment for the current Venezuelan government. Of course, there are some states that continue to side with Maduro and his regime. The two most important examples are Russia and China—the latter otherwise has recently tried to distance itself somewhat from Venezuela. These two have obtained large swathes of Venezuela’s energy and other strategically important sectors, benefitting from a number of preferential loans to the country. Trump’s administration, on the other hand, has had a troubled relationship with both countries recently, and it is clearly upset that its rivals have set foot in its “back yard.” Furthermore, the United States’ oil interests may be compromised by the inroads the other two have made in the Venezuelan energy sector. Now, after the elections in Latin America and in the wake of Maduro’s growing international rejection, Trump probably concluded it was time to force a change.
Apparently, he also found the right Venezuelan partner for that move. On the very day of his ascension to the presidency of the National Assembly, Guaidó had a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. According to the Office of the Spokesperson’s somewhat laconic briefing, “The two reaffirmed their desire to work together closely on a broad range of issues throughout the year to bring about a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic future for the Venezuelan people.” Rumour also has it that Guaidó had talks in several countries to forge the present coalition backing him now. Against this backdrop, it came as no surprise that Trump did not hesitate for too long after the step taken by the President of the National Assembly and almost immediately recognized him as Venezuela’s interim president.
Today @POTUS announced the U.S. officially recognizes Juan Guaidó as the Interim President of Venezuela. To @JGuaido & the people of Venezuela: America stands with you & we will continue to stand with you until #Libertad is restored! pic.twitter.com/4W3hlGplql— Vice President Mike Pence Archived (@VP45) January 23, 2019
Trump announces on Twitter that he is resolute to back Juan Guadió
Following his announcement, the United States’ regional allies and the Secretary General of the Organization of American States issued similar statements, while Maduro’s previously-mentioned allies, in addition to Iran, Turkey, Uruguay, and Bolivia, aligned themselves with the foregoing president.
Countries of the international community according to their stance towards the Venezuelan issue (black: Venezuela, dark blue: countries recognizing Guaidó, light blue: countries backing the National Assembly, red: countries recognizing Maduró
While there is little doubt about the shakiness of the constitutionality of Maduro’s previous steps and, as a result, the legality of his re-election as President from a constitutional point of view, Guaidó’s act also raises some questions. As an interim President, he cited Articles 233, 333, and 350 of the Venezuelan Constitution. Articles 333 and 350 provide citizens with the possibility of defying regimes that counter the provisions of the Constitution or ignore democratic values and restoring constitutionality—however, they do it in fairly vague terms. Article 233, however, provides a much more tangible legal basis listing all the cases when a President shall be temporarily replaced by the President of the National Assembly. The last point of these is the “revocation of his power by the people,” while, at the same time, the Constitution does not specify when exactly this situation materialises. Clearly, it can be stated that Guaidó could occupy his present post because the country had no president after all, Maduro being only a “usurper.” However, this argument has subjective implications. For instance, it is unknown to anybody how much popular support Maduro or his opposition actually has. For example, based on data from market research firm Datanálisis, it is true that 75% of the population would have voted against Maduro last spring, but the same data suggest that MUD’s rejection was only slightly below that. However, the opinion of the legal experts who commented on the issue is also far from unanimous.
The Constitution also stipulates that the President of the National Assembly, appointed as President under the above circumstances, has thirty days to hold new elections. If Guaidó is unable to meet this deadline, he might provide a further argument for the forces questioning his legal basis. This also leads us to the question of what options there are for the country to break the deadlock. Possible solutions include negotiations, a military coup, a self-coup by Maduro, an escalation into a civil war, and an international intervention. It seems quite certain that, in any scenario, the country’s armed forces will play an important role in how things unfold. Due to Chávez’s past as a military leader and the military’s growing role in the country’s political and economic decisions, its leadership has a fundamental interest in maintaining the current system. There are, however, signs suggesting that there is growing opposition to the system even within the armed forces. So the question is how extensive and organized these sentiments are, and how successful the forces loyal to the present leadership will be in keeping them under control. Of course, the possibility that the military leadership will turn away from Maduro cannot be ruled out either: Guaido’s promise of giving amnesty to soldiers, or the US plans for new sanctions, are likely to be aimed at dividing military leadership.
China and Russia are not likely to back off in the foreseeable future, but it is also unlikely that they will enter an open armed struggle to save their ally. It would contradict the international image China has been building for itself, and could also discourage its other partners in the region. Meanwhile, Russia does not officially intervene even in conflicts in its very neighbourhood—but, of course, it does so unofficially, and now there are news saying that it has already shipped units of its “Wagner” paramilitary army out to Venezuela to protect Maduro. Though Trump has been keeping the option of a military intervention open (as he put it: “All options are on the table.”), the probability of this to happen is rather small. For one thing, the cornerstone of Trump’s foreign policy is to reduce the country’s participation in international conflicts. On the other hand, such an intervention would probably breed bad blood, as a possible US intervention would also strike a chord with the Latin American population, always sensitive to its huge neighbour’s meddling with their affairs. Furthermore, Trump could also end up without any allies for this move, as the countries in the region are proud of their ability to resolve their conflicts in a peaceful way. All in all, it is no coincidence that Bolsonaro and, earlier, the Lima Group also rejected any future military interventions. Last but not least, the US also needs to consider the financial, military, and moral implications of such a military campaign.
If the above reservations are valid, then a resolution can only be expected as a consequence of international economic and diplomatic pressure, or a cooperation between the opposition and the armed forces. However, the Chávez-Maduro regime has already proved to be surprisingly resistant to external and internal pressures, demonstrating that it does not refrain from violence or breaching the law. Moreover, it has at least as many supporters in the country as its opposition. Finally, bound by their economic and geopolitical interests, its two major allies, China and Russia, will certainly be willing to keep the current regime afloat for a quite a while—provided that other variables stay steady.
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