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The ongoing crisis in Venezuela, characterized by hyperinflation, acute shortages of food and medicine and regular protests and clashes, has been called both a politico-economic as well as a humanitarian phenomenon. Although the downward economic spiral aggravated after socialist President Nicolas Maduro got elected by a narrow majority in April 2013, the genesis of the crisis essentially lies in the country’s history that speaks volumes on what has gone so drastically wrong in Venezuela today.

Hugo Chavez, who promised to take corruption and poverty head-on, was earlier elected president in December 1998. True to his promise, he used Venezuela's rapidly growing oil wealth to set up social programmes, known as the Misiones, with the aim of eradicating poverty and reducing inequality. At that time, the people at large hailed the programme as a much-needed intervention in the entrenched disparity between Venezuela's rich and poor. This made Chavez immensely popular and solidified the socialist moorings of Venezuela’s political system. Over the next few years, Chavez devised his own idea of radical 21st-century socialism, that involved nationalisation of industries coupled with funding of a bloated state bureaucracy at great national expense, all through high oil prices and unchecked borrowing. As a result, the country’s debt rose to record-high levels.

After the death of Chavez in March 2013, the reins of power went to his successor Nicolas Maduro, after which the economy began to actually implode. Oil prices came down rapidly and the heavy oil oil-dependent economy of Venezuela went completely bust. The recession set in, inflation spiralled, and people were reduced to penury- a situation that persists till today.

The deepening crisis and the resultant desperation among the ordinary people have since given rise to vehement domestic as well as international criticism against the Maduro regime, and in a sense, has given an opportunity to several countries to advance their influence in regional geopolitics, especially since late January 2019. President Maduro won an extremely controversial election in 2018, in which many opposition leaders were not allowed to contest citing different reasons. The opposition had termed the elections as a brazen power grab through illegitimate means. The US and other Western countries also termed the elections as patently unfair although Maduro's government maintained the elections complied with the necessary requirements. On January 10, Maduro was sworn in for a second six-year term, despite opposition from several other Latin American countries. 

The Organization of American States refused to recognize his new term, with Paraguay announcing it was breaking diplomatic relations with Venezuela. The US also refused to recognize what it called the "Maduro dictatorship's illegitimate inauguration".  

Inside the country, opposition leaders branded Maduro's second term illegitimate and called for the opposition-controlled National Assembly to declare the presidency vacant. The National Assembly did just that, citing Articles 233 and 333 of the Venezuelan constitution. However, the Supreme Court ruled that all actions taken by the National Assembly were null and void. Despite the Supreme Court's ruling, Guaido declared himself interim president on January 23, with the US leading a chorus of other countries in recognizing Guaido as the country's new leader. 

After declaring himself interim president on January 23, Guaido, with the backing of the US, laid out his broad plan for Venezuela. His plan focuses on the opposition's strategy for the economy and oil resources and examines public services, security, governability and society. Guaido has also called on members of the military to disavow Maduro, promising all security forces personnel amnesty if they break with the leader. 

The Global Response:

After Juan Guaido declared himself the President of Venezuela, the United States was one of the first countries to officially recognize him as the interim president. US President Donald Trump declared in a tweet that the Maduro regime was “illegitimate” and that the people of Venezuela had suffered for too long under his leadership. Maduro immediately responded, stating that he believed the US was attempting a regime change by illegally removing him from power and has called the US attempt to depose him a “coup”. Unsurprisingly, the US hardline on Venezuela and Maduro has found strong support among the Latin American and South American countries like Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru, who have blamed the current government in power for the deteriorating economic conditions that have caused immense hardships for common people. Additionally, a majority of the European Union countries including France, Germany and Spain, backed the Guaido led opposition showing official support through a joint statement. They further recognized only the National Assembly, controlled by the opposition, as the only legitimate parliamentary body in the country. Till date, more than 50 countries have recognized opposition leader Guaido as the interim President.

Meanwhile. for the ordinary Venezuelans, everyday life is increasingly becoming difficult. A severe shortage of foods and essential commodities is now reflecting in hyperinflation. According to a study released by the National Assembly, by the end of 2018, prices were doubling every 19 days on average. The stores are reported to be empty, and the social programmes are not being able to relieve the stress of not finding the basic things. The health sector is also struggling with a reportedly  85 per cent shortages of medicines, poor hospital conditions and migrations abroad as medical professionals leave the country. Over three million people have fled the country since 2014, and it is expected to reach 5.3 million by the end of 2019, according to the UN estimations. 

The situation has got complicated by the additional sanctions imposed by the US to punish the Maduro government. On January 28, 2019, the Trump Administration announced sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PdVSA. As a result, all property and interests in property of PdVSA subject to U.S. jurisdiction have been blocked, and U.S. persons have been prohibited from engaging in transactions with the company.

There are reports that the US is considering new sanctions that would stop Visa, Mastercard and other financial service companies from processing payments in Venezuela. The purpose of these sanctions is to continue to deprive the Maduro regime of access to funds[1]. At this moment it is not clear whether the measure would affect debit cards as well as credit cards, with the former being the most common form of payment in Venezuela given the cash shortages caused by hyperinflation.

Many in Venezuela fear that the sanctions imposed last week will push the already suffering nation of about 30 million people into an even greater humanitarian catastrophe. Venezuelan oil exports to the United States, which provide the biggest source of cash for Mr. Maduro’s government, plummeted 40 per cent last week. Customers suspended contracts, banks suspended Venezuelan accounts, and a dozen tankers filled with Venezuelan crude sat stranded across the Caribbean.

Venezuela’s economy has already shrunk by about half since Mr. Maduro came to power in 2013, causing millions of people to flee the country or skip meals to survive. Now the new American sanctions could cut Venezuela’s oil exports by two-thirds, to just $14 billion this year, and lead to a 26 per cent reduction in the economy’s size, according to some analysts.

The opposition did plan to bring American-sponsored humanitarian aid — including medical kits and enough food to feed 5,000 Venezuelans for 10 days — into the country through the border with Colombia. Accordingly, the US made efforts to send humanitarian aid in several trucks through the Colombian border city of Cúcuta. Some planes with US aid also reportedly landed near the border. However, the Maduro government refused to let the aid in and maintained that stories of hunger and shortage in the country are exaggerated. He accused the countries backing Guaido of siding with the imperialist policies of the US and supporting the US in its regime change techniques This has further exacerbated tension in the region with the US threatening military action in favor of the Venezuelan people. Eleven of the fourteen member states of the Lima Group, which was formed in 2017 to attempt to bring about a peaceful solution to the Venezuelan crisis, also called for urgent delivery of medicines and humanitarian aid to the country.

Of course, the Maduro regime has found powerful friends and supporters, even as his opponents step up efforts to further isolate the embattled president. Major global players such as Russia, Iran, Turkey and China, among others, have strongly backed the Maduro government calling it constitutional. They have also warned the US and its allies against any regime change politics which they say are in direct contradiction to international norms. Thus open hostility between powerful blocks of countries over the fate of Venezuela has raised the sceptre of a new cold war with unforeseen consequences for the future geopolitics in the region

Domestically, the President has strong support from the country’s Supreme Court, and the armed forces, emboldening the government to stick to power at all costs. These two institutions are major unifying elements in the Venezuelan political and social fabric, and their support to the government is going to be key factors in Maduro’s struggle against the opposition. No wonder, even in the face of international opposition, Maduro has refused to step down, claiming that he is the legitimate President and would surely defeat the “crazed minority”.

 

References:

Venezuela crisis: How the political situation escalated. (24 January 2019). BBC

Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-36319877

30 countries officially recognize Guaido as Venezuela’s interim President. (5 February 2019). Gulf News.

Retrieved from: https://gulfnews.com/world/americas/30-countries-officially-recognise-guaido-as-venezuelas-interim-president-1.61884580

Kurmanaev, Anatoly and Krauss, Clifford. (February 8, 2019)U.S. Sanctions Are Aimed at Venezuela’s Oil. Its Citizens May Suffer First.  New York Times. Retrieved Fromhttps://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/08/world/americas/venezuela-sanctions-maduro.html

Venezuela blackout: Most of the country in darkness for hours. (8 March 2019). BBC Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-47492624

Venezuela crisis: Maduro vows to defeat 'crazed minority'. (6 March, 2019). BBC Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-47464414

Venezuela: US Threatens New Sanctions as Hyperinflation Slows Down. Vaz, Ricardo.

 (March 15, 2019).

Image Credit: BBC News 

 

 

 

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Written By Mahananda Ray

Undergraduate student

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