Venezuela at Boiling Point

Source: Wikimedia CommonsSource: Wikimedia Commons

What is Occurring in Venezuela?

That Venezuela is a nation in crisis is not breaking news. Inflation rates reached 830,000% in 2019 (IMF), whilst an entire nation was left without medicines, basic food items or even toilet paper on the supermarket shelves. Of the 2.3 million Venezuelans who are living outside the country, 1.6 millon have fled since 2015; bearing in mind that Venezuela has a population of 32 million in January 2019 (UN), this means that over 6% of Venezuelans have seen their country’s situation so dire, that they have simply resorted to leave. Many – e.g., the UN refugee agency, UNHCR – argue that this number would be far greater if all those who wanted to leave, but did not possess the means, were accounted for.

What is, however, novel is the political ultimatum that has now been levelled against current President, Nicolás Maduro, by several countries including Spain, Germany, France, the UK, and the USA. In short, they have threatened that Maduro must call an election within eight days, or they will officially recognise the opposition leader, Mr Juan Guaidó, as interim President. Mr Maduro’s Foreign Minister, Jorge Arreaza, has flatly responded that “nobody is going to give us deadlines or tell us if there are elections or not,” and the country’s government has already decided to sever diplomatic ties with the USA. The current government is supported by a few international backers, importantly including Russia, in a Western-Eastern bloc disagreement tentatively reminiscent of Cold War clashes.

The current turn of events not only adds urgency to the situation but proves unprecedented: there is no previous model from Venezuela for how a situation of this nature might evolve – or devolve.

What is the Context of Recent Events?

Maduro had conspicuously retained support since his assumption of the Presidency in 2013 following the death of Hugo Chavez, at least until considerable increases in unrest and violence starting in 2017 laid bare to the eyes of the world the schism in political opinion that the country was experiencing.

An allegedly rigged election in 2018, where many opposition candidates were either barred from running or jailed, has proved to be the final straw for a government now perceptibly marred by accusations of corruption – and worse crimes against its people. Indeed, it is because of this most recent political hoax that the country’s National Assembly is arguing that the presidential position is actually vacant, because the election was undemocratic.

How might the situation progress?   

As an observer looking intently to the near future, it is worth asking what this bold latest response from the international community might mean de facto. Firstly, little may change in practice. Mr Maduro retains the puppet-strings of power and is currently still supported by the country’s military. Any further increase in civil strife and outward protest is thus likely to be faced by the barrel of a gun; in this past week alone, over 20 civilians in rebellion have lost their lives.

His opponents, although emboldened, are made neither safe nor secure by the support of countries thousands of kilometres removed from the crisis. Furthermore, the opposition itself – like the government – is not a monolithic group in the country; it is instead composed of factions that often disagree, and between whom power dynamics can rapidly shift. Taken in conjunction, these political realities render events even more challenging to forecast.

In this context, if we accept that in 8 days there will be two parallel governments operating in Venezuela, it is still difficult to imagine how the situation might improve. Mr Maduro holds the power, and all internal attempts to alter the distribution of power have proved fruitless. It is unlikely too that the governments that have expressed support for Mr Guaidó will go far beyond words alone to effect change, particularly in the current political climate: a UK otherwise preoccupied with Brexit; a Spanish government struggling from the outset for support; a USA locked until recently in a shutdown of the Federal government, with questions over ‘the Wall’ and scandals over Russia taking up most of its available political attention and resources.

Even if the tools of the international arsenal are brought out, these are primarily of an economic nature. The USA, for example, has the power to increase sanctions, as well as reinforcing asset freezes targeted against entities associated with the Maduro government. However, these constitute blunt instruments. Maduro and his elite are unlikely to be materially affected; by contrast, the impoverishment of most of Venezuelan society means that sanctions would probably further worsen the daily lives of citizens more than aid them.

It seems that calls for more substantial international intervention may only arise if the country descends even further into the abyss; and even then they would require significant international support that does not seem to be forthcoming at this stage of 2019.

Is there any hope for Venezuela? 

It is not an unfair analysis to say that Mr Maduro has been presiding over Venezuela almost as a dictator, using his power to systematically strip away the democratic and economic rights of his populace in order to maintain office. Namely, he has reduced the constitutional powers of the National Assembly – and the individuals that they represent – to the degree that he can now effectively rule alone. Bravely, the dissenting voices continue to increase in volume, despite considerable threats to their security. In the meantime, citizens are dying of basic, treatable diseases and starvation, in what was once considered to be a country with great economic potential, due to its abundant natural resources.

The newfound global coalition in support of Mr Guaidó is unlikely to approach a resolution in the coming weeks, since Mr Maduro seems far from ready to deviate from his position. A sliver of optimism could be that with enough pressure from the international community, he might change his mind; however, it is currently but a sliver.

Nonetheless, the people of Venezuela deserve that we not become pessimistic. The tide has now definitively turned against Mr Maduro, both internally within Venezuela and abroad, and his power is running on an engine that now seems bound to eventually run out of fuel. Until it does, nations and international bodies must continue to support Venezuela as best they can, and keep reminding Mr Maduro that his time is soon up.