The Venezuelan crisis has reached boiling point. Two political leaders have locked horns over the presidency of the country with the largest oil reserves in the world. One is backed by Washington, the other by the army. All possibilities are open.
“All options are on the table,” warned US President Donald Trump when he announced that he officially recognised the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as the acting president of Venezuela.
Soon afterward, US National Security Adviser John Bolton added: “Any violence and intimidation against US diplomatic personnel, Venezuela’s democratic leader, Juan Guaidó, or the National Assembly itself would represent a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response.”
Meanwhile, Russia, a supporter of President Nicolas Maduro, has warned that any use of force by the US would aggravate the situation and cautioned against all foreign intervention.
On 23 January, opposition leader and Speaker of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself acting president at a mass rally in Caracas. Just minutes later, as though coordinated in advance, as the BBC suggests, Washington announced its recognition of Guaidó.
Canada, Argentine, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Georgia and Albania followed suit. So, too, did Israel, on Sunday, long angered by Caracas’s support for the Palestinian cause.
Six European countries (Spain, France, Germany, Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands) held off. They gave Maduro eight days (until next Sunday) to call for elections or else they would also recognise Guaidó as president.
Maduro immediately rejected the ultimatum. “Nobody is going to give us deadlines or tell us if there are elections or not,” his foreign minister said.
The EU did not stipulate a deadline but it issued a statement that if elections were not held, it would consider “further actions, including on the issue of recognition of the country’s leadership”.
China, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Greece, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Uruguay have sided with Maduro, in addition to Russia.
The Vatican has avoided taking sides. On Sunday, Pope Francis called for “a just and peaceful solution to overcome the crisis [in a manner] that respects human rights and exclusively seeks the good of all people”.
Although Maduro, last week, indicated that he was willing to talk with the opposition leader, Guaidó rejected the offer of a “fake dialogue”.
The Venezuelan army continues to support Maduro, as it has since he rose to power in 2013 following the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, the leader of the leftist Bolivarian Revolution and president from 1999 to 2013.
Maduro, who started out as a bus driver and boasts of his humble roots, was re-elected to a second term in 2018 in a controversial election process that was widely criticised for its lack of integrity and transparency.
During his presidency, the country, which has a population of 32 million, has suffered a crippling economic crisis that has precipitated heavy waves of migration to other countries in Latin America and elsewhere.
An estimated 600,000 Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia, 300,000 to the US and another 300,000 to Europe (of which 200,000 went to Spain). In mid-2018, hyperinflation in Venezuela topped an astronomical 80,000 per cent, according to estimates from the opposition-led congress.
The IMF predicts that it will reach 10 million per cent by the end of 2019.
The Venezuelan economy has been in free-fall since 2014, which the opposition blames on the socialist policies of the Maduro government. The economy has been almost exclusively dependant on oil revenues, the prices of which plummeted several years ago before they gradually began to recover.
According to the opposition, the government resorted to minting large amounts of currency in order to appease the poor, albeit with paper money that had no value.
In order to battle the hyperinflation, the government raised the minimum wage 34 times, until it reached 3,400 bolivars (around $6 on the black market) per month.
The country is now experiencing severe food shortages and rates of child malnutrition have reached record highs.
The Venezuelan government under Maduro and Chavez before him enjoyed massive support among the poor because of policies supporting them.
Broad segments of the poor and lower middle classes voted for Maduro in the 2018 elections which were boycotted by the opposition and from which many groups were banned from participating. But price controls, including caps on the prices of such commodities as flour and cooking oil, did not go over well with large enterprises and the business community.
The pro-Maduro camp blames the economic deterioration on the US blockade which, they say, rendered the government unable to manage its debts. On the other hand, according to a publication by the Venezuelan Communist Party, the leftwing government, during its 15 years of existence, has been unable to build a productive economy and therefore remained captive to rentier revenues from oil. As a result, the economy was extremely vulnerable to the global decline in oil prices.
Rashid Guilip, a former adviser to Hugo Chavez, holds that US-backed “rightwing” opposition forces have rallied their supporters and are “on the offensive”. He predicts “difficult and dangerous” days ahead for his country.
Many eyes are on the army which has the power to settle the situation on the ground. In a demonstration of support for Madura, his Minister of Defence Vladimir Padrino, announced that armed forces would never accept a president imposed by “shadowy interests” or someone who appoints himself president outside of the law.
Guaidó countered with a call for peaceful protests “in every corner of Venezuela” on Wednesday and again on Saturday “to demand that the army to side with the people”.
The previous day, Colonel José Luis Silva, Venezuela’s military attaché in Washington, defected from Maduro. In a video, filmed at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, he urged his “brothers in the armed forces of the nation” to do the same and “to recognise President Juan Guaidó as the only legitimate president”.
Guaidó announced that he would grant a general amnesty to the members of the military who supported “democracy”, an offer that elicited criticism among his supporters who demand justice for the “human rights abuses” they suffered under nearly two decades of socialist rule. In fact, Guaidó indicated that he would consider granting an amnesty to Maduro, himself, if he ceded power.
Still, to Guaidó, the most pressing need is to hold free and fair elections. “Our challenge is to secure free elections, and we want them as soon as possible. But we are living in a dictatorship.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Guaidó vs Maduro