Venezuela: South America’s Black Sheep?


Venezuela appears to be inching ever closer to a constitutional crisis as its neighbours in the region begin to consider recognizing the head of Congress Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of the economically ruined country. Current President Nicolás Maduro was inaugurated on January 10, following widespread criticism and a largely boycotted election. Maduro is becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the region, and hasn’t been able to offer any fresh ideas to help Venezuela drag itself out of recession and hyperinflation. Doubly worrying has been Maduro’s rhetoric of late; he recently described Brazilian President Bolsonaro as a Hitler of the modern era. Maduro appears to be steadily losing favour domestically, but has retained the crucial support of the pro-government Supreme Court. Venezuela’s Supreme Court has been in conflict with the legislature ever since the opposition took control of Congress in 2016, and according to a Reuters report has preemptively invalidated any laws passed by the body. This has resulted in Venezuela being in a situation of near constitutional crisis, which presents a considerable threat to millions who have been thrust into poverty as a result of Venezuela’s hyperinflationary economy.

Evidence of the need for change in Venezuela is apparent in what was missing from Maduro’s state-of-the-nation address last Monday. Maduro promised to raise the minimum wage by an unprecedented 300%, as well as promote increased use of a state-backed cryptocurrency. But there was precious little substance in the speech, which failed to address real strategies for fixing the nation’s broken economy. “It’s a sort of déjà vu. There is nothing there that allows one to think that Venezuela will exit the deep crisis it’s experiencing,” said Asdrubal Oliveros, director of Caracas-based consultancy Ecoanalítica. Many economists commenting on Maduro’s speech had low expectations for any real improvement to come out of it, and the way in which his socialist government has been funding wage hikes has only caused inflation to grow out of control. The current government’s method of increasing monetary supply has caused the annual rate of inflation to hit almost two million percent, meaning that any gain from the minimum wage hike will likely be stripped away in mere days. Given the circumstances of Maduro winning a second term, he is facing intense pressure to step aside, with critics in the United States and Latin America calling him a dictator whose failed state-led policies have caused Venezuela’s worst ever economic crisis. The situation has become so dire that is impossible to ignore, and any further steps by Maduro or his supporters to make Venezuela more isolated will only have further detrimental effects on the economy and the millions of citizens in poverty.

The international community is pushing for change, with some of North and South America’s leading lights considering their next move in response to the crisis. Al Jazeera reported that President Trump’s administration was considering recognizing Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president. Guaidó, aged only 35, is a newcomer on the national scene and is described by many outside commentators as a breath of fresh air. Last week, Guaidó stated that he was willing to replace Maduro as interim president if he could gain the support of the military. Obtaining this would be critical for Guaidó as without it, any attempt to remove Maduro from power would be fruitless. If this were to happen, it would also be ideal to call fresh and free elections to provide the people some sense of ownership of any new government. Action is needed soon, as Brazil last week pledged to restore democracy in Venezuela. President Bolsonaro said, “We will continue to do everything possible to re-establish order, democracy and freedom there.” Exactly what this would mean is unclear, but governmental transition in Venezuela should come from within and not from a Brazil-led external intervention. This is especially important given Maduro’s inflammatory rhetoric directed at Bolsonaro, which means that any Brazilian activity aimed at regime change would be met with fierce resistance from Maduro and the military. However, Venezuela still needs to be supported diplomatically and economically if there is any chance of the economic and humanitarian crisis being brought to an end. Because of this need for support, it is troubling that Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Monday that South American countries are developing a new diplomatic group to replace the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and exclude Venezuela. While it is understandable that South American countries are doing this to protest Maduro and his policies, they fail to see the fact that Venezuela will not be able to fix its situation in isolation. Venezuela needs international support, and neglecting it will only cause more problems for the region.

Prolonged isolation of Venezuela will only result in more irregular migration into the surrounding areas, an aspect of the crisis which has become a serious issue for many. Already an estimated three million people have fled Venezuela in the past three years, and it is now not uncommon for parents to leave their children behind in Venezuela as they seek work abroad. Any growth in this trend will only increase strain on neighbouring countries like Brazil and Colombia, demonstrating the need for them to take joint action with Venezuela and not against it. This cooperation should take place within the existing UNASUR framework, and not outside it.

The current problem is that it seems abundantly clear that a change in government is required for Venezuela’s neighbours and the wider global community to properly support the country. Last year’s election, which saw Maduro win a second term, was a snap election, happening eight months before the usual December date. Many domestic nongovernmental organization (NGO) monitors reported irregularities with voting papers, schedules, and the competency of electoral officers. This, coupled with a record low voter turnout, caused many countries to label the election as illegitimate and fraudulent. It appears that the legitimacy of Maduro’s government will need to be addressed first, and this can only be achieved by calling fresh elections. This process would be fraught with difficulty and almost certainly require international monitors to ensure the robustness of the process and legitimacy of the outcome. If this were to happen, Guaidó would need to ensure he had the full support of the military, otherwise the process would be quickly derailed.

The situation is currently at a tipping point, and requires the full attention of the international community. By isolating Venezuela, we are turning our backs on the humanitarian crisis that has developed as a result of the nation’s broken economy. It seems that the first step the international community needs to take is to facilitate Venezuela through a process by which a government recognized as legitimate can be established. This is necessary both to ensure that its citizens are correctly represented and that measures both domestically and internationally can be taken to reign in the country’s out of control economy.

Matt Adamson

A Policy Advisor for the Central Otago District Council, I am particularly interested in International Relations and Human Security Issues. I try to encourage people to think critically about the issues that don't always get the attention they deserve.
Matt Adamson

About Matt Adamson

A Policy Advisor for the Central Otago District Council, I am particularly interested in International Relations and Human Security Issues. I try to encourage people to think critically about the issues that don't always get the attention they deserve.