Venezuela used to be one of the richest countries in the world. It has more oil than any other country in the world, but in 2017 Venezuelans experienced an 85% dearth of medicine and an inflation rate of over 2600%. Massive, daily protests broke out in the streets as citizens responded to mass food shortages. The average Venezuelan had lost 23 pounds in 2017. Next year, inflation is expected to reach over one million percent. What happened?
Now, I’m not going to get into a deep economic analysis — this is about the people of Venezuela, and self-determination — but there are many who point to Venezuela and say, “Look — socialism doesn’t work.” To that, I say three things: correlation does not equal causation; you cannot isolate Venezuela’s social economic policies from the corruption of its government or the mismanagement of its resources; and Venezuela’s economy was doing pretty well until 2013.
In 2013, the former populist, leftist president, Hugo Chavez, died, leaving behind an appointed successor: Nicolás Maduro. Maduro has overseen the collapse of his country’s economy, and cracked down on dissent and opposition politicians. After the protests in 2017, which left 165 dead and thousands more injured or arrested, Maduro was set to face reelection in May of 2018. He won the election with 68% of the vote. However, many called the election a fraud, and pointed to the low turnout, jailing of dissidents, and lack of international observers. (Hilariously, “low turnout” here means 46%, which is just one point shy of the 47% 50-year high we managed in the US midterms.)
In response, the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislative body which Maduro stripped of power and attempted to replace with his own Constituent Assembly, challenged the election. In January, a young lawmaker named Juan Guaidó became the leader of the opposition and the National Assembly, and unified the previously divided opposition by declaring himself president of Venezuela.
See, the Venezuelan Constitution (Article 233 ladies and gentlemen) stipulates that if the President becomes “permanently unavailable to serve by reason of … abandonment of his position, duly declared by the National Assembly” then “a new election … shall be held within 30 days” and “the President of the National Assembly shall take charge of the Presidency”. Very legal, and very cool.
Within mere hours, the US had voiced its support of the interim president, and called for Maduro to step down. This was followed by a flurry of similar shows of support from virtually the entire Western Hemisphere and Europe. On Maduro’s side? China, Russia, Iran, North Korea — oh look, the whole gang’s here. Another example of dictators propping each other up.
On the other hand: “We do not want to return to the 20th century of gringo interventions and coups d’état.” So said Maduro in response to the US backing Guaidó, and so says history. Even if this is a totally legitimate constitutional process (it is), initiated and desired by the Venezuelan people and their representatives (it was), it looks a lot like a US-backed coup, and the US doesn’t have a great track record down south.
Look at it this way: the US has a long history of backing coups against democratically elected leftist governments in Latin America. Prior to Guaidó’s declaration, there had been push back from the US; then, the President of the United States puts out a statement supporting Guaidó within hours of the news — a bit too quickly for them not to have known about it; and then you have Trump threatening military action, followed by massive sanctions. Yeah, that would about do it.
On the other hand, if you’re Guaidó, before you go declaring yourself the rightful president of Venezuela to replace a brutal authoritarian, you might want to make sure the rest of the world is going to back you up. It’s the recognition of other states that lend any government legitimacy, so you back channel with US diplomats, get assurances that they have your back and will say so, and you go back home to face off against a man who has starved your country with the full-throated support of the defenders of freedom.
In the meantime, Maduro remains in power. The key here is the military: whoever has the guns has the power, and thus far the armed forces have stood by Maduro. However, Guaidó has offered them amnesty in an attempt to gain their support and trust, which has been controversial to some who see it as a capitulation. The US levied enormous sanctions on Venezuela on January 28th, which are expected to devastate Venezuela’s economy further, leaving them only Asian, non-dollar-denominated markets for their oil.
But, if Maduro doesn’t step down, it’s the people that will suffer most. They will continue to starve and die without the medicine they need. Millions have fled the country. Meanwhile, as demand for Venezuelan oil plummets and Venezuelan crude sits unable to be transported without lighter US oil to water it down, Venezuelan oil production will ramp down — and it won’t come back easily. Neither will the people, fearing for their lives, who left. #fpf
You can donate to help send food, medicine, and education materials to Venezuela through Cuatro Por Venezuela, a US-based charity started by four Venezuelan women.