The Venezuelan crisis: Can Maduro survive?

It is not hyperbole to say that Venezuela is in crisis. The country is in the grip of hyperinflation; a tenth of the population has emigrated; those remaining face chaos due to shortages of power, water, food and medicine. People are feeding themselves from rubbish, and parents are abandoning children they can no longer support.

Once one of South America’s wealthiest countries, Venezuela began its collapse into violence and danger with an economic crash in 2013, the year of Maduro’s election.  The previous president, Chavez, must bear some responsibility for the state of the economy: he overspent and borrowed dangerously in the early 2000s. This does not excuse Maduro’s staggering incompetence, the effects of which he blames on the USA and imperialism rather than acknowledging the need for policy change.

Politically, Maduro is now unquestionably a dictator. Thus, it is to the National Assembly that democrats have now turned. Its leader, Juan Guaido, declared himself president on 23rd January. The Venezuelan constitution allows the leader to take over if the role of president is unoccupied, which Guaido argues is currently true, as Maduro’s presidency is illegitimate.

Naturally, there are no guarantees that Guaido will be able to rescue Venezuela, nor that he would be an ideal president, if he did get into power. However, he now provides a rallying point and popular focus of hope for the opposition forces.

“Politically, Maduro is now unquestionably a dictator.”

The presence of an alternative president could be crucial in allowing the country to present a united front against Maduro and in support of democracy. Guaido has stated that Venezuela is under a dictatorship and called for new elections – a promising sign that, should he take power, Venezuelan democracy might be restored.

Trump almost immediately recognised Guaido as president, as did most other South American countries; on January 26th, many European countries including the UK stated that if elections were not held within eight days, they would follow suit. On 4th February, the UK issued a joint declaration with other European states which recognised Guaido as interim president. It would seem that Trump has finally established a foreign policy that we can support. Of course, the US declaring opposition to a socialist regime is not exactly unpredictable. Nor is it overly cynical to wonder whether the world’s interest in Venezuela’s fate has as much to do with concern for its oil as for its people, and how much neighbouring countries are motivated by fears of having to cope with ever higher numbers of refugees. But whatever the motivations, recognition by the US, surrounding countries and Europe will increase Guaido’s standing and fame, adding weight to his challenge to the regime.

Recognition is one thing; military intervention, at which recent US rhetoric hints, is quite another. The potential human cost to Venezuela could be devastating. However, the history of similar military interventions should warn the US not to take that drastic step, especially while Venezuela and Colombia remain at peace. For this reason, I would suggest that for the time being we can approve Trump’s recognition of Guaido without being too concerned about the possibility of an invasion.

“For the Venezuelans currently going through hell, Guaido offers some hope, but cannot provide certain change.”

As for the future, it is probably too optimistic to hope that internal and international pressure might bring Maduro to resign. For one thing, that pressure is not unanimous: Russia and China are on his side. And, crucially, he has the army, which remains loyal. This is unsurprising given that Chavez ensured that the high-ranking military was composed of socialists who would support the regime.

Maduro has also consolidated his support in the army by giving officers key roles in government, and posts in the national oil company, which has allowed them to make corrupt financial gains. Army leaders, therefore, have an interest in keeping the current government in power. This military support may allow Maduro to hang on as president, perhaps even to crush the opposition. It might be expected that ordinary soldiers would sympathise with the desperate situation of the people. However, despite Guaido’s assertions that he is talking to the military, there is little indication so far that the army will change sides.

Maduro will probably stay in power until he loses the army, which is unlikely unless the situation deteriorates further. For the Venezuelans currently going through hell, Guaido offers some hope, but cannot provide certain change.  For now, the country remains chaotic and desperate, and Maduro is letting this happen in order to cling on to power.

Image credit: Gobierno de Venezuela via Wikimedia Commons