Sorting Out the Complicated Venezuela Situation

March 4, 1019

Almost everyone agrees that Venezuela is in a very dire situation. It is difficult to comprehend all the relevant issues, but it is even more difficult to find a good, just solution. In this brief article, we will look at the recent historical background of Venezuelan politics, its current economic and political problems, and finally sketch out some possible options.

Hugo Chávez was the charismatic President of Venezuela from 1999 to 2012. Economically, the country was doing well, because Venezuela was sitting upon one of the largest oil reserves in the world. While oil prices were high (around $110 a barrel) Chávez was able to provide many social services for his citizens. Although he appointed several leftwing leaders to high positions in his administration, he also included conservative and centrist leaders as well. He followed the Rhenish version of capitalism, not the neoliberal version. He also generally implemented the recommendations suggested by the International Monetary Fund. Although he was criticized for being too autocratic, he was reelected in the 2000 elections with 60% of the vote. As criticisms continued to increase, he moved economically to the left and adopted Democratic Socialism as his economic philosophy (in contrast with the Leninist-Marxist versions of Russia and China in the 20th century). He chose to financially support likeminded governments in Latin America and the Caribbean (including Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba). In 2004 there was a national referendum to recall Chávez from the presidency, but he won with 59% of the vote. In the 2006 elections, Chávez again won, this time winning with 63% of the vote. The election was generally considered to be fair and honest by the Carter Center and by the Organization of American States. He also won the 2012 election with 54% of the vote. Due to his death on March 5, 2013, his Vice-President Nicolás Maduro assumed the presidential powers on a temporary basis.

Early on, there was resistance to the Maduro presidency. Opposition leaders claimed that he violated Articles 229, 231 and 233 of the Constitution. In the presidential election of April 2013, Maduro defeated his closest rival by just 1.5% of the vote. The 2017 Assembly elections were widely seen as fraudulent. The United States labeled Maduro a dictator, whereas Russia, China and Cuba defended him. In the first few years, high oil prices were able to keep the Maduro leftist government afloat. Nevertheless, oil prices fell in the second half of 2014 from $110 a barrel to about $50 a barrel. This proved disastrous for Venezuela’s economy, because oil comprised over 90% of the country’s exports. Maduro was reelected in 2018, but many regarded this election as fraudulent. The Organization of American States Permanent Council declared that Maduro was not the legitimate president and urged that new elections be called in the near future.

In January 2019, the National Assembly invoked a state of emergency. It additionally declared that the Assembly’s President, Juan Guaidó should be recognized as the nation’s interim president, according to the Constitution. Since then, there has been a standoff. Supporters for both Guaidó and Maduro have protested in public rallies and have marched in the streets. The Organization of American States, the Lima Group (comprised of more than a dozen countries in the Amerias) and the United States have recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president. Other nations (including Russia and China) have continued to recognize Maduro. Meanwhile, millions of Venezuelans have left the country and fled to Colombia, Brazil and other countries. Food has become exorbitantly costly and very scarce. The country is in crisis.

A Way Forward?

  1. Maduro has made many serious mistakes (authoritarianism, fraudulent elections, corruption). I think it is too late for Maduro to continue to govern for the benefit of the Venezuelan people. He should leave voluntarily, but it doesn’t look like he will.[1] He still has the support of a vocal, significant portion of the people, but more importantly, the majority of the military generals still support him.
  2. The United States has utilized economic sanctions to hurt Maduro´s administration and to pressure him to leave. This has not worked. This has only caused pain for the Venezuelan people. The U.S. government has threatened to use military force to remove Maduro. This would be the worst scenario and would lead to a bloodbath.[2]
  3. The Organization of American States and the Lima Group should continue to use diplomatic efforts to resolve the problem. If they could persuade both Maduro and Guaidó to agree to elections in the near future (during the next three months?), this would be the best solution. The quicker the agreement is reached the sooner tensions would decrease and emergency aid could arrive to the people in need.

Politics: The Art of the Possible

It is frequently claimed that politics is the art of the possible. What is possible for Venezuela? Option #1 above is unlikely and Option #2 would be a disaster. I favor Option #3. To achieve this, the Organization of American States should use all its diplomatic skills to bring about an acceptable solution. The OAS would need to bring to the negotiating table those countries that support Maduro (Russia, China, Mexico, Cuba). The United Nations could also lend its support. It might be possible that Maduro and Guaidó could agree to elections, but only if neither were allowed to be a candidate for the presidency. For the well being of the Venezuelan people, I would favor this option as the most viable peaceful alternative. In the end, it should be the Venezuelan people who determine their own future. Those of us on the outside should provide truly helpful assistance, not “answers” that hide our own greed or desires.

[1] Countries that Maduro has befriended (like Bolivia, Cuba, or Nicaragua) could take a helpful first step, if they would offer asylum to Maduro and his family and friends. Some of his critics would prefer Maduro to be brought to trial, but I think it is more important for him to leave the country as soon as possible.

[2] The United States has a horrible reputation in Latin America for interventions for its own benefit or hegemony in the area. The U.S. either orchestrated or supported many coup d’états that took out democratically elected governments (Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, etc.) and replaced them with brutal dictatorships.

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