Venezuela's political crisis appears to be reaching a boiling point amid growing efforts by the opposition to unseat the socialist president, Nicolás Maduro. Over the years many opposition leaders have been jailed as Maduro cracked down on growing dissent to his regime.
Venezuela is now in a mess. The country has “two Presidents” and both claim their legitimacy. One is Nicolas Maduro, the incumbent since 2013. The other is Juan Guaido, the National Assembly leader who declared himself “President” on January 23.
Russia and China support Maduro while lawmakers at the Brussels-based European Parliament voted to accept Guaido “as the legitimate interim president of the country” and urged the European Union to follow suit. The Trump administration in the US accepted and recognized Guaido reportedly “within 5 minutes” of his declaration.
The country has been caught in a downward spiral for years with growing political discontent further fuelled by skyrocketing hyperinflation, power cuts and shortages of food and medicine. More than three million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years.
It may be recalled that the downturn of economy started with Hugo Chavez who became President in 1998 and a strong believer in socialism that led businessmen and women to leave the country.
The Trump administration has clear goals in Venezuela and is determined to achieve them with limited means. Those goals are straightforward:--Out with the fraudulently elected regime of Nicolás Maduro, its Chávez-style socialism, and its strong ties to Cuba, Russia, Iran, and China. Within the region, Maduro’s support comes mainly from Cuba, an ideological fellow traveler with few resources to help. Die-hard socialists would hate to lose their foothold in Latin America.
On the other hand, Trump wants to squeeze Maduro with harsh economic pressure, recognizing Guaidó as the legitimate leader, and naming an experienced point man, Elliott Abrams. It also would be a departure for President Trump, building a supportive coalition of Latin American nations and major economic powers.
Trump’s reactions are able to blunt Maduro’s knee-jerk claim that any effort to replace him is simply Yankee imperialism. His claim sounds unrealistic when there are massive protests inside Venezuela itself and after nearly every country in South America (Bolivia and Uruguay are the exceptions) recognized Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader.
At the Caracas University, Guaido reportedly presented a “rescue plan to cheers from the audience for a country mired in economic meltdown, with basic goods and services scarce. He reportedly said that he would address the humanitarian emergency, stop inflation, and move towards the restoration of access of public goods and reactivate the oil industry. The speech came one day after thousands of people led by Guaido took to the streets in Caracas and other cities banging pots, blowing whistles and horns, and carrying banners that read:” Armed forces, regain your dignity” and “Maduro usurper.”
Venezuelan military officers reportedly blocked a bridge on the border with Colombia ahead of an anticipated aid shipment as opposition Juan Guaido stepped up his challenge to President Maduro’s authority. Earlie the opposition-dominated National Assembly warned the armed forces which make up much of Maduro’s power base, not to cross “redline” by blocking aid.
These restrictions won’t add much more pain for Venezuela’s ordinary citizens, who already face grim conditions. The economy is in free fall, food is scarce, and inflation tops 1 million percent, according to Reuters. When currency becomes worthless, as Venezuela’s has, the economy is reduced to barter. What will the sanctions do, then? They will make it very hard—nearly impossible—for Maduro to buy food and essential supplies for his soldiers. If they defect, the regime dies.
As this scenario inexorably tightens, Maduro’s foreign allies face two hard questions. First, will any of them extend hard currency or military backing to the embattled regime? The second question is more troubling for Venezuela’s people. Will Maduro’s allies support a guerrilla insurgency or civil war if Guaidó takes over? This would be a grim scenario.
The immediate question, then, is whether Maduro can retain control of his country’s military. If he cannot and his regime is deposed, the next question is whether its die-hard remnants in the country will fight on, aided by Cuba, Russia, and Iran. If they do, America will assist the new regime with arms, training, investments, and markets for oil. But don’t expect many American boots on the ground.
Maduro’s government has meanwhile cracked down on the foreign media, working in Venezuela.
I had the opportunity to visit Venezuela in 1974 to attend the first substantive session of the UN Law of the Sea Convention (which was finally adopted by the UN in 1982). On the streets of Caracas I saw smartly clad Venezuelan young men and women roam the streets. Each of them knew three languages-Spanish, French and English.
At the time Venezuela was one of the richest countries in Latin America. If I compare Venezuela of 1974 with what exists in 2018, it reminds me that a leader of a country can really make or unmake a country by pursuing constructive or destructive policies.
Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.