Brief #56—Foreign Policy
On January 23rd, Venezuelan lawmaker Juan Guaido surged from relative obscurity to the focus of international attention when he declared himself the interim President of the crisis ridden nation. Just weeks before, Guaido was appointed the leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly, the legislative body representing the opposition to President Nicolas Maduro. Guaido’s Presidential legitimacy was immediately recognized by President Trump, after Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro similarly declared his recognition five days before Guaido even made the pronouncement himself. European Union nations including Britain, Germany, France, and Spain followed suit in the subsequent weeks when Maduro neglected to call a new election to placate critics of his dubious re-election in May of last year, which was boycotted by the opposition.
With Maduro still in control of the government, Guaido’s international allies are driving pressure against him by targeting the state’s resources. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton asked the Bank of England to deny the Venezuelan government’s withdrawal of $1.2 billion in gold. A Portuguese bank similarly blocked a $1.2 billion transfer of assets to Uruguay. The White House has added new sanctions against the state oil company PDVSA, allowing US companies to continue to buy oil from them but preventing that money from reaching Venezuela until Guaido takes power. On Monday, the EU said that additional sanctions were being considered. These would accompany other sanctions ordered by Washington in 2014, 2015, and 2018. With economic ties to many western countries severed, the Venezuelan government is leaning more on allies in China, Russia, and Turkey. One US official warned on Thursday that the White House would “take action” if Turkey violated sanctions in supporting the Venezuelan government.
In the past five years, the Venezuelan economy has endured an economic collapse, marked by shortages of food and medicine, as well as rising poverty and inflation. The political system has become completely polarized. The roots of these issues are not new, and are in many ways familiar for a post-colonial Latin American nation. Before Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” in 1999, the country exhibited many of the symptoms it shows today, with frequent economic crises, massive inflation and corruption, and a lack of consideration for constitutional rights. The country had been developed largely on the strength of oil exports alone, and Chavez attempted to direct oil revenue towards the funding of social programs which provided healthcare, education, food and social mobility to the masses, making him widely popular. This enthusiasm was not shared by all Venezuelans, and in 2002 a faction of the military, with the support of much of the Venezuelan upper classes and United States, staged a brief coup, during which businessman Pedro Carmona was installed as interim President and the constitution and legislative bodies were abolished, before Chavez retook power. With Chavez’s death and replacement by Maduro in 2013 and oil prices dropping from $160 per barrel in 2008 to $51 in 2019, the Venezuelan government suddenly no longer held the same political mandate or financial resources to maintain its path towards international independence and an egalitarian society.
President Maduro compensated for his government’s weaknesses by pursuing increasingly authoritarian methods of reaching his political goals. When the National Assembly, the country’s primary legislative body, was taken by the opposition in 2015, the outgoing lame duck lawmakers stacked the Supreme Tribunal of Justice – the highest court in the country – with Maduro loyalist judges. When the Tribunal accused three opposition lawmakers of electoral “irregularities”, the charges were disputed by the National Assembly and Maduro formed the Constituent National Assembly in 2017 as a parallel legislative body. While a precedent for forming a similar body had been set in 1999 by Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor had asked for a national referendum first, and used the body to restructure the functions of the government – not simply buttress political support. Maduro has stripped away many of the electoral protections which led former President Jimmy Carter to state in 2012 that “of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
However much of the US media coverage of the Venezuelan crisis depicts the opposition as the embodiment of the “Venezuelan people”, and the US as a solely emancipatory force. The United States has a history of utilizing a strategy of “making the economy scream” to undermine democratic Socialist regimes. The constant use of sanctions has most likely contributed to food and medicine shortages, an issue noted even by the US Congressional Research Service. John Bolton recently boasted of “$7 billion in assets blocked today. Plus, over $11 billion in lost export proceeds over the next year”, which amounts to 94% of what the country spent on imports last year.
The State Department has spent millions of dollars funding the Venezuelan opposition, even before democratic norms had begun to erode. Last year, opposition leader Henri Falcon was warned by US officials that the Trump administration would sanction him if he ran against Maduro, despite the fact that polling showed he had a strong chance of beating Maduro, especially if the election was monitored by UN observers, who were turned away by the opposition.
Now the US and opposition seem to be willing to help drive Venezuela into a deep enough crisis that the population will accept a complete departure from the paradigm of the Bolivarian Revolution rather than participating in a democratic process which would involve the sharing of power between parties. Despite the abuses of the Maduro regime, there is no evidence to suggest that he does not maintain the support of a significant portion of the population who have not given up on the dream promised by Chavez two decades before.
As long as Maduro controls the government and military, there is not a clear situation where the opposition can unilaterally take power without a military intervention from either the United States or Brazil. In a region already habituated to anti-imperialist resistance, this could mean an enormous and destabilizing civil war in the region. The other alternative is a mediated political resolution, most likely involving Maduro stepping down and the holding of new, UN monitored elections. The US government cannot maintain a presence in these negotiations, as it has forfeited its position as both an interventionist force around the globe and a neutral arbiter in Venezuela. The solution to this crisis can only come from the voice and democratic power of the Venezuelan people themselves.
- CodePink: A women-led grassroots organization working to end U.S. wars and militarism, and support peace and human rights initiatives.
- Washington Office on Latin America: A research and advocacy organization providing independent analysis of issues such as the Venezuelan crisis.
This Brief was submitted by USRESIST NEWS Foreign Policy Analyst Colin Shanley: Contact Colin@usresistnews.org