The Battle for Venezuela* Tony Wood
On 23 January – the anniversary of a revolt that toppled the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958 – the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself interim president. But the crisis has been long in the making. Most of the Venezuelan opposition boycotted the presidential election held last May, in which Nicolás Maduro was standing for a second term, and refused to recognise his victory or the legitimacy of his new term in office. Within hours of Guaidó’s announcement, by contrast, the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, among other states in the Western hemisphere, had recognised him as Venezuela’s president. Two weeks later, however, Maduro remains in the Miraflores, and it’s unclear whether we’re witnessing Trump’s first regime change or a failed coup.
There is no doubting the extent of the economic and social disaster Venezuela is experiencing. Beset by five-digit inflation, food shortages and rising poverty and unemployment, the economy contracted by more than a third between 2013 and 2018, and has slid even further since. This has wiped out the real gains made by most of the population between the mid-2000s and the time roughly when Maduro succeeded Hugo Chávez as president in April 2013. There has been a wave of emigration spanning the social spectrum: by November 2018, the UNHCR estimated that as many as three million had left the country, with 80 per cent of them now scattered across Latin America and the Caribbean.
There is no doubting, either, that Maduro has failed to address this crisis. Hampered by the razor-thin margin by which he won his mandate in 2013 – 1.5 per cent – he has governed with a combination of bluster and repression. He stuck to a disastrous exchange-rate policy even though it was visibly making things worse for most of the population. Frustrated by the opposition-controlled National Assembly, he made aggressive and self-defeating moves against it, going so far as to decree its dissolution in 2017 – though, as we can see, it has continued to function. But it’s also true that, economically, any Venezuelan leader would have been weakened by the slump in global oil prices that began in mid-2014. The effects of this were made even worse by the US sanctions that started under Obama, who in March 2015 declared Venezuela an ‘extraordinary threat’ to US national security; under Trump, they have been extended several times.
But Maduro’s intransigence has been more than matched by that of the opposition. Its leaders are fervently committed to overturning chavismo, driven by a visceral loathing that often comes with a strong dose of racism. The first direct challenges to Maduro’s rule came in early 2014, with a series of protests, the guarimbas, led mainly by the middle class and students. Then, in December 2015, the opposition gained control of the National Assembly: the first time it had a majority there since Chávez took office in 1999. With this, an institutional deadlock came into being that has lasted to this day: chavistas are in charge of the executive and – since Maduro designated a new supreme court in 2015 – the judiciary; but the opposition has the legislature, and refuses to recognise the authority of the other two branches of government. It’s this deadlock that the opposition has now moved to break, with the aid of massive external pressure on Maduro.
Venezuela’s opposition is a fractious alliance of different tendencies but for the past few years it has been dominated by its most vociferously right-wing components. Their single-minded focus on removing Maduro has spread to the rest of the opposition. Even ‘moderates’ such as the former minister of planning Ricardo Hausmann have recently begun openly calling for a US military intervention. During last year’s Brazilian election campaign, Jair Bolsonaro hinted at military action in Venezuela; after he won, Guaidó’s party, Voluntad Popular, congratulated him and hoped he would help ‘rescue liberty and democracy in Venezuela’. Voluntad Popular is a small party, with only 14 out of 167 seats, but in January it took up the assembly’s presidency, under a rotation designed to stop infighting within the opposition.
This put Guaidó in pole position. Now 35, he studied in Washington DC, but came of age politically during the anti-Chávez protests of 2007. Though he has been widely fêted in the Western press since his auto-anointment, he wasn’t well known in Venezuela before 23 January, and even now it’s unclear how much support he personally can command. Much the same can be said of the opposition as a whole. It has often boycotted elections it wasn’t likely to win, preferring to impugn the democratic process. Sometimes it has adopted this refusenik stance even when it did win: in October 2017, it took five out of 23 state governorships, but told its candidates not to take the oath of office (four of them disobeyed the instruction). In the 2018 presidential election, a section of the opposition backed Henri Falcón, the former governor of Lara state who split from Chávez in 2010, but the rest decided on a boycott. Maduro won 68 per cent of the vote, on a turnout of 46 per cent – more or less par for the democratic course in the US, but low by Venezuelan standards.
Guaidó’s claim to power rests on the idea that, since this vote was invalid, not only is Maduro not the legitimate president but, according to a Transition Law the opposition released on 8 January, there is no president. Constitutionally, this is shaky ground. Article 233 of the 1999 Venezuelan constitution specifies the circumstances under which a president can be replaced: death, resignation, removal by the supreme court, physical or mental incapacity, abandonment of post. The National Assembly has a supervisory role to play in each of these scenarios, but nowhere does the constitution say that the legislature can claim executive power for itself. This is why the opposition instead cites Article 333, a provision that exhorts citizens to help re-establish constitutional order in the event that it is derogated by an act of force. In other words, the opposition is claiming the constitution no longer applies but that in the resulting ‘state of exception’ the National Assembly is empowered to bring it into effect once more, as soon as Maduro – whom it calls a ‘usurper’ – is removed. Another significant detail: Article 233 requires new elections within thirty days, but the opposition’s Transition Law makes no such specific commitment.
The Transition Law is also light on specifics about the opposition’s programme for governing Venezuela although the outlines are clear: the ‘centralised model of economic control will be replaced by a model of freedom and markets’; the chavista social programmes will be replaced by direct (i.e. monetary) subsidies; ‘public enterprises will undergo a process of restructuring … including public-private agreements’ (i.e. privatisations). What’s being promised is a return to the conventional neoliberal wisdom of the 1990s – precisely the set of policies that produced misery in Venezuela, and which propelled Chávez to power in the first place.
At stake here is the fate not just of Maduro, but of the whole Bolivarian model. It’s no accident that this comes at a moment when the right is flexing its muscles across Latin America; the eagerness with which forces outside Venezuela are seeking to put paid to chavismo is all too apparent. The pressure on Maduro has been ratcheted up by the Lima Group, established in August 2017 specifically to work with the Venezuelan opposition to find a ‘solution’ to the crisis. It consists of 12 countries, all of them in the Western hemisphere and predominantly governed by parties of the right. That any self-appointed outside body should have a say in a given country’s affairs is bad enough; but this ad hoc junta’s credentials for pronouncing on democracy in Venezuela are pitiful. In the short time since it was founded, two of its member states have been governed by unelected presidents (Brazil and Peru); one of them has a president who was re-elected by a rigged vote in 2017 (Honduras); one is under UN investigation for corruption (Guatemala); one has been investigated by the DEA for laundering drug money (Paraguay); and there’s no forgetting Colombia, where paramilitary groups routinely murder trade unionists and where, according to 2018’s figures from the UNHCR, there are nearly eight million internally displaced people. (To its credit Mexico, though among the founders of the Lima Group under President Peña Nieto, has distanced itself since López Obrador came to power.)
In its founding statement, the Lima Group declared its full support for Venezuela’s National Assembly. On 4 January this year, it upped the ante, stating that if Maduro assumed office for a second term the following week it would consider him a usurper – not coincidentally using the same terminology as the Venezuelan opposition. Two days later, the general secretary of the Organisation of American States, Luis Almagro, effectively started the clock on regime change, citing Guaidó’s ‘important constitutional responsibility to initiate Venezuela’s urgent transition to democracy’.
It was the Trump administration, however, that really accelerated the pace of events. Regime change in Venezuela has been on Washington’s agenda since the early 2000s, but the failed coup against Chávez in 2002, and the boost he got through successive electoral victories and high oil prices, made it impracticable for several years. Venezuela’s economic troubles, and the rolling crisis of legitimacy that has marked Maduro’s presidency, have moved it to the front burner. In May 2017, Trump imposed new sanctions on Venezuelan state companies and officials, the first in a series of noose-tightening measures: there were more in August 2017, in March, May, August and November 2018, and on 10 and 28 January 2019. In August 2018, Trump apparently asked aides why the US couldn’t just invade. But until last month, the White House’s preferred scenario was for the Venezuelan army to get rid of Maduro on its behalf. In February 2018 the then secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, casually speculated about the possibility of a military coup, and in September the New York Times reported that the US had been holding secret discussions for the past year with members of the Venezuelan top brass to persuade them to topple their president.
These evidently didn’t go as planned. On 10 January, Mike Pompeo publicly called on the Venezuelan armed forces to remove Maduro but the Trump administration was already betting on Guaidó. A White House official described him to the Washington Post as ‘the piece we needed for our strategy to be coherent and complete’. The same day, Pompeo called Guaidó and assured him that if he declared himself interim president he would have America’s backing; Mike Pence did the same on 22 January, the day before Guaidó’s proclamation. Trump, Pompeo and Marco Rubio were the first to recognise Guaidó; the Lima Group quickly rubber-stamping the power-grab they themselves had helped bring about. On 4 February European countries followed suit, recognising Guaidó after the expiry of a tough but pointless ultimatum (they had given Maduro eight days to commit to holding new elections).
What happens next? There is a frighteningly clear path ahead to an escalation of the crisis, including military intervention by the US, possibly alongside its ideological bedfellows in Brazil and Colombia. Having pushed for regime change, the US is not likely to back down quickly. As if to signal US intentions, on 25 January Trump appointed as his special envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams, the man who ran the Reagan administration’s dirty wars in Central America, and who worked in the Bush White House during the last US-backed coup attempt in Venezuela in 2002. ‘It’s very nice to be back,’ Abrams said. Guaidó and his external backers clearly expected Maduro to be removed in short order. That he has not been suggests a greater degree of support for him inside Venezuela than the US bargained for, not because Maduro is at all popular, but because the basic fact of sovereignty still matters to enough people; for others, a ‘transition’ shaped by the US may seem too high a price to pay for his removal. The longer Maduro remains in the Miraflores, the more successfully he will be able to depict Guaidó’s parallel government as the creature of outside powers.
Whatever this crisis is about, it isn’t about restoring democracy and prosperity to Venezuela. To read the Western press, you would think the country’s people were at last about to be set free from the tyranny under which they have been groaning for years, in a Caribbean rerun of the Arab Spring. But we’ve been here many times before. In Latin America alone, the long and disastrous record of US-led interventions is enough to cause alarm about the possible outcomes of this crisis.** Even if Maduro is levered out of power, the battle for Venezuela is just beginning.
** Greg Grandin has written about the history of Latin American and US ideas of sovereignty in an article published on 8 February on the LRB website.