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Focus Politics

Uncertainty Looms in Venezuela

Olivia O'Donnell February 18, 2019

Para leer este artículo en español, haz click aquí.

Illustration: Eva Dinino

The fate of Venezuela remains uncertain as a political standoff continues between the sitting president, Nicolás Maduro, and the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó. Guaidó, the leader of the democratically-elected national assembly, declared himself interim president of the country just two weeks following President Maduro’s inauguration for his second term, plunging the country further into havoc. Venezuela, plagued with economic, political, and humanitarian crises, now faces a situation in which the current president refuses to step down despite the rising opposition against him.

Since 2013, Maduro has overseen a crumbling economy while violence continues to permeate the country. The disputed elections in May of last year, which are widely believed to be illegitimate, stand as a testament to Maduro’s supposed corruption and dishonesty. This contributes to a mounting distrust in authority amongst Venezuelans. His apparent inability to fix Venezuela’s problems has resulted in floundering public support despite retaining the crucial backing of the military. In stark contrast, the young Guaidó is popular among Venezuelans and western democracies, but has yet to infiltrate the power structure. Now, both claim to be president and neither is backing down.

The opposition figurehead generally perceived to be the legitimate president has incited Venezuelans to protest Maduro and other officials to loosen their grasp on power. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans demonstrated their discontent on the streets of the capital Caracas last Saturday in the hopes of forcing Maduro out of office. Other protests were held across the country with the same goal. Yet, Maduro maintains that he is the rightful leader of a legitimate, democratically-elected government and shows no signs of budging.

Maduro has been in power since the 2013 death of Hugo Chávez. The former military officer, elected president in 1998, turned Venezuela from a middle-income country riddled with inequality into the most economically successful Latin American country and was able to use that mobility to address the concerns of the poor. Through oil profits and social reform, Chávez transformed Venezuelan society.

Yet, he also weakened the democracy by undercutting parliamentary power through the creation of a new constitution. Eventually corruption and mismanagement in all tiers of government spread, and in conjunction with the 2010 fall in oil prices, Venezuela soon experienced disaster. Hyperinflation and the collapse of the private sector industry contributed to civil unrest and economic fragility, marking the destabilization of Venezuela. When Chávez died from cancer, Maduro, then the foreign minister, took over. He inherited a crippled economy, and in the attempt to ameliorate it, Maduro has neutralized other branches of government to consolidate power within his inner circle. In order to eliminate opposition, attempts by Venezuelans to protest Maduro have been met with state violence. With the economy in disrepair, citizens face an epidemic of hunger, and millions have already fled the violence and lack of resources. Maduro’s recent inauguration marked the final tipping point, one which plunged the country into a standoff which pitted not only Venezuelans against one another, but other world powers.

During a mass rally, the relatively unknown Guaidó took center stage by chance. He has been recognized as the rightful leader most notably by the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany, and other Latin American countries. The US has even responded to Maduro’s refusal to hold new elections by imposing harsh sanctions, seizing Venezuelan assets, and threatening military intervention. While this does weaken Maduro, it also has an adverse effect on the Venezuelan people.

Venezuela’s future is murky. The possibility of a civil war looms over the heads of civilians while they struggle to live amidst hunger and violence. Whatever their fate, one thing remains certain for now: both Maduro and Guaidó are not backing down.