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Venezuela’s political crisis has no end in sight, with President Nicolás Maduro refusing to relinquish power and blocking humanitarian aid from entering the country to help address a growing food shortage.
Last month, Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself president of the country, arguing that Maduro’s victory in the 2018 presidential elections was illegitimate. More than 60 countries have recognized Guaidó as the country’s president, but Maduro’s refusal to step down has thrown the country into chaos.
In his remarks today at Florida International University in Miami, President Donald Trump reiterated his administration’s support for Venezuela’s opposition leadership, proclaimed that the days of socialism in Latin America are “numbered,” and urged Venezuela’s military forces to end their support for Maduro.
“The people of Venezuela are standing for freedom and democracy and the United States are standing right by their side,” said Trump, who also did not explicitly rule out the possibility of U.S. military intervention. “We seek a peaceful transition of power but all options are open.”
Here’s what we know about what’s happening in Venezuela, and what’s next.
Venezuelan constitution does not offer ‘a way out’
The opposition has argued that Maduro’s election last year was fraudulent and left the country without a legitimate president since the end of his last term. According to the Venezuelan constitution, if the office of the president is vacant, the leader of the National Assembly automatically becomes interim president while new elections are convened. But Guaidó’s efforts to assume power have so far fallen short, and experts said Venezuela’s laws don’t offer an obvious solution to the standoff.
“The Venezuelan constitution doesn’t really offer a way out of the current situation,” said Harold Trinkunas, the deputy director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country’s rightful interim ruler, arrives to attend a meeting with volunteers to coordinate humanitarian aid in Caracas, Venezuela February 16, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello
One way to resolve to the crisis would be for Maduro to step down and allow for independent elections, Trinkunas said.
But so far Maduro has refused to cede power and Venezuela’s military has sided with his regime, including carrying out orders to block humanitarian aid from entering the country. But some experts said if the crisis continues the military’s rank-and-file members could stop supporting Maduro, sparking a split in the military that would worsen the conflict.
“It’s obvious the [top] hierarchy of the military supports Maduro a 100 percent,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuelan historian and Latin American studies professor at Pomona College. “If one faction of the military breaks for the opposition and one faction breaks for the Maduro government, you’re looking at a potential conflict, a war.”
How did Venezuela get to this point?
Maduro was elected president 2013 after Venezuela’s longtime leader, Hugo Chávez, died from cancer. Maduro was a close ally of Chávez’s and was serving as vice president when Chávez died. Maduro inherited a strong economy driven by high oil prices, which allowed Maduro to continue funding Chavez’s popular social programs, such as low-income housing and subsidized food distribution. But experts say the Venezuelan government Maduro took over was also too dependent on oil revenue and faced long-overlooked structural issues.
“Maduro also inherited the legacy of a state that was too big, spent too much, was too indebted, [and] was very inefficient and highly corrupt,” Trinkunas said.
When oil prices dropped, Maduro was unable to continue funding Chávez-era social programs, and the government started spending less on the state-run oil industry, which caused production to drop. A shortage of consumer goods, including food, followed as the economy went into decline. Since 2013, Venezuela’s gross domestic product has dropped 50 percent, and the number of Venezuelans living below the poverty line has risen to 90 percent, according to the National Institute of Statistics in Venezuela.
The economy started its downward spiral, and in 2015 an opposition coalition won two-thirds of the seats in parliamentary elections in a rebuke to Maduro.
“At that point, the Maduro regime had to decide what to do,” Trinkunas said. “Will it go on with the outcome of the democratic election, or will it put up roadblocks to the opposition’s role in government?”
Humanitarian aid for Venezuela, with a sticker that reads “Donation, prohibited its sale”, is seen in a warehouse on the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela in Cucuta, Colombia, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
Maduro responded by taking steps to decrease the opposition’s power, including packing the Supreme Court with loyalists and sidelining the National Assembly’s power. In 2017, Maduro ordered the creation of a new legislative body called the Constituent Assembly and called for a rewrite of the nation’s constitution. The move was criticized and sparked further political unrest, leading to the contested 2018 elections and current crisis.
Negotiating a transition to democracy
With both sides dug in, an international monitor could be the best hope for helping Venezuela to resolve the impasse and transitionto a functioning democracy, said Geoff Ramsey, an assistant director for the Venezuela unit at the Washington Office on Latin America. But past attempts at an international intervention have failed. On Sunday, Maduro expelled a team of five European Union officials from Venezuela, further escalating the dispute over efforts to bring humanitarian aid into the country.
And so far, the opposition has refused to take part in a separate negotiation process led by Mexico and Uruguay. Elliot Abrams, the newly-appointed U.S. envoy to Venezuela, has also ruled out negotiations with Maduro and urged all involved “to deal solely with the legitimate Guaidó government.”
“The expectation by the United States and its partners, including the new right-leaning Latin American governments, that forcing out Maduro will usher in a stable, uncorrupt, democratic, and efficient government is not based on reality,” said Fulton Armstrong, a former U.S. national intelligence officer in Latin America who teaches at American University.
Others said the Trump administration’s appointment of Abrams — who was convicted in 1991 for lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal — as the U.S. envoy to Venezuela could be an obstacle in negotiations.
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has refused to step down after the 2018 presidential elections. File photo by REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo
“The appointment of Abrams, who carries significant Cold War baggage despite being an effective operator, risks dividing Venezuela policy along partisan lines in the United States,” said Ramsey. “At a time when there is a bipartisan consensus that Maduro is an authoritarian leader and that there needs to be new elections, I am afraid this debate will become more about ideology.”
In January, the United States imposed sanctions on Venezuela that prohibit American businesses from buying Venezuelan oil and exporting gasoline.
These sanctions are likely to exacerbate gas shortages in Venezuela and hinder food distribution and humanitarian assistance as long as the crisis goes on, Ramsey said.
“We don’t know that these oil sanctions will cause the regime to fall, but we absolutely know that the humanitarian crisis will get far worse,” Ramsey said. “The state pays for almost all imports using hard currency from the oil sector, which generates deep incentives for corruption and is why food and medicine are already scarce.”
In the meantime, humanitarian aid has languished on the Venezuelan-Colombian border, even as the opposition and the United States have increased pressure on the Venezuelan military to end the blockade.
“It’s really important that the Venezuelan people themselves are being put in the center of this, and not Chavismo or the opposition,” Ramsey said. “There’s a real risk of that suffering being used as part of a political debate, rather than being taken at face value.”
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