May 20, 2019
Venezuela was once one of Latin America’s most stable and prosperous democracies, but has spiraled downward on all fronts at a dizzying pace after years of neglect and economic mismanagement by the autocratic regimes of Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro. Since Chavez’s death and Maduro’s assumption of power, Venezuela’s economy has contracted every year since 2014, political and civil liberties have been ravaged, and corruption is rampant. Hyperinflation is predicted to reach 10 million percent in 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund, while more than three million Venezuelans have fled their country, seeking to escape crime, unemployment, and shortages of goods from food to medicine to toilet paper. For decades, Latin Americans and others sought refuge in Venezuela from their economic and political crises, but today that reality has sadly reversed.
There have been glimmers of optimism for Venezuelans during the past few years. The victory of an opposition legislative coalition to the National Assembly in 2015 brought some hope for change, but over the next two years a politicized judiciary and the creation of a pro-government National Constituent Assembly rendered the National Assembly virtually powerless. In May 2018, Maduro was reelected to a second six-year term in elections that were deemed by a broad range of international governments and observers as flawed and illegitimate, as it was scheduled on an accelerated basis to advantage Maduro and most leading opposition parties and candidates were excluded from participation. On January 23, 2019, president of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó branded Maduro a “usurper” and declared himself the interim president. His justification was based on constitutional grounds; according to Venezuela’s constitution, if the presidency is vacant (which Guaidó argues in this case it is because Maduro took the office illegitimately), the head of the National Assembly becomes acting president.
Since Guaidó’s declaration, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets to march in peaceful opposition to Maduro’s regime. From February 2018 to February 2019, there was a 260% increase in protests, averaging 57 protests per day. A total of 54 countries, from the United States and Canada to a majority in Latin America and nearly all European Union (EU) countries, have recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate interim leader. Further, the Unites States has imposed new sanctions barring U.S. companies from engaging with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, which will result in financial losses for the Maduro government amounting to billions of dollars. While the top military brass, which have been given senior positions and have access to economic privileges, continue to support Maduro, there are signs that loyalty from the rank and file may be waning. Many have fled to countries like Colombia and Peru, some have disobeyed orders to stop protesters from marching, and the creation of gang-style external forces (colectivos) to crack down on the opposition may be an indication of fissures within the military. However, an attempt to conduct a coup on April 30, 2019 failed due to insufficient support from the military. Additionally, Maduro continues to receive support from certain members of the international community, such as Cuba, Russia, China and Turkey, which maintain that Maduro is Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
Venezuela is at a critical crossroads. For the first time in decades, a democratically elected leader is in a position to potentially end the criminal regime that has crippled Venezuela. Recommendations for the U.S. administration to support Venezuela’s return to democracy include:
* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.