The Pursuit Of Political Change In Venezuela

Venezuela, once the richest country in South America due to its oil reserves, is currently crippled by a deep economic and political crisis. The crisis has sent millions into poverty and starvation. This has led citizens to take desperate measures, such as looking for food in garbage bins. Now the crisis has reached a boiling point with growing force to remove President Nicolás Maduro.

In this dire situation with growing discontent fueled by hyperinflation, the Venezuelan currency, the bolivar has become almost worthless. For example, one can buy a chicken for 14,600,000 bolivars (equivalent to $2.22, or £1.74) in the capital, Caracas. In the struggle to afford food and household supplies, the crisis has sent approximately 3 million people to leave the country in recent years.

The U.N. Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration estimates the number of people leaving Venezuela to be around 5 million this year, with an average, of 5,500 people leaving the country every day. Many who leave end up in neighboring countries, especially Colombia, but also the neighboring Caribbean islands.

Hundreds of people take part in an opposition demo against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on February 12, 2014. Unidentified assailants on a motorcycle fired into a crowd of anti-government protesters, leaving at least two people wounded and a pro-government man dead. Photo: AFP PHOTO / JUAN BARRETO

Maduro succeeded Hugo Chavéz after his death in 2013, under which he served as Foreign Minister and for a brief moment as Vice- President. Yet even though troubles started to brew before him, he has been accused of undermining democracy and violating human rights since taking power. During Maduro´s rule inflation has skyrocketed and the crisis has accelerated into a situation never seen before in the nation. In 2017 a new Constituent Assembly was introduced which has the authority to write and change the constitution. This put the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which is the only body in the government not run by Maduro, in the shadow by superseding it.

However, on the 20th of May last year Nicolás Maduro was re-elected for a second six-year term, following the announcement that he would serve out his remaining first term and only be sworn in for a second term on January 10th. Consequently, this was not recognized by the Venezuelan opposition-controlled National Assembly. The election was widely criticized as a sham and was marred by opposition boycott and allegations of vote-rigging.

As a result large protests were carried out against Maduro following his re-election. These protests escalated into  marches with tens of thousands taking to the streets of Caracas to demanding change for their country. At least 40 people have been killed and around 850 detained in the protests so far, the largest occurring on January 23rd. Approximately 26 people died at the hands of security forces and armed groups loyal to Nicolás Maduro.

January 23rd was also the day when the new leader of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó declared himself as interim President of Venezuela. This meant that he would assume the powers of the executive branch and possess leadership until new elections were held. In his speech he claimed power by referring to articles in the Venezuelan constitution, These articles states that the head of the National Assembly can take over the presidency in the absence of a legitimately elected president, calling Maduro an illegitimate ”usurper”. The articles invoked also include that Venezuelans are to protect the constitution and to reject any regime that undermines democracy and human rights.

The opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself president on the 23rd of January. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This news traveled quickly across the globe and turned into an international issue with world leaders deciding which President to support. Taking the side of Guaidó is the United States, along with Canada and counties in the European Union.  European powers such as France, The UK, Germany and Spain said they will recognize him as new President if Maduro do not call for new elections within eight days.

This alignment was stated on a UN meeting the Saturday after Guaidós claim to temporary power. Russia, China and Turkey have publicly backed Maduro instead, arguing that the opposition [National Assembly] has illegitimately taken power, and that this violates international law.  Further complicating matters, is that the United States that has been the opposition´s and Juan Guaidó´s biggest advocate by imposing sanctions against Venezuela´s oil industry in attempt to clear out Maduro. The US President Donald Trump himself was no later than just minutes after Guaidós announcement to recognize him as the interim President of Venezuela.

Thus large international support, all are still not in favor of the new President. Maduro still possess support from members of the security forces and his success could depend on the military´s backing, which for now officially stands firm. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino did however express his loyalty towards Maduro and said that the security forces would never accept an imposed government. Yet it is for now unclear how solid the support is.

It is clear that Juan Guaidó poses a real challenge for Maduro and that the military has a significant role in determining which direction Venezuela will be heading in the future. Military support is crucial for enabling change in government, but there is a possibility that the future could be bright for the opposition leader. The Washington Post reports that almost 80 percent of the people are said to disapprove of Maduro.

Also increasing numbers of military members are more willing to denounce the old regime in the interest of creating a brighter future. The loss of income after the US oil sanctions and its consequences is also a likely cause of people sympathizing with Guaidó. By examining events that happened during the last couple of weeks and by being caught in international interests, it is clear that there are questions concerning what a new Venezuela will look like undergoing a change in leadership. There are no guarantees this will happen smoothly.

Emma Rohman

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