Venezuela is in the midst of an economic and political crisis which is being exacerbated by outside actors. Deep corruption and a mismanaged economy have led to a large number of Venezuelans going without food, medicine and other essential goods; many of them are migrating into neighbouring countries to try to escape these conditions. Economic sanctions by the U.S. have since made the situation worse.
Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s legitimacy is being challenged, in part due to irregularities in his most recent election in May 2018 and his moves to undermine Venezuela’s constitution since then. The leader of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself as interim president in January and was quickly recognized as legitimate by the U.S., suggesting prior collusion. Since then, most Latin American countries and many Western nations have also recognized Guaidó and called for fresh elections in Venezuela.
Maduro also has powerful backers, including China, Russia and Turkey, who condemn the recognition of Guaidó as being part of an attempted coup. Many Venezuelans have suffered for years under appalling economic conditions and will support anyone who can rid them of Maduro. However, Maduro still retains a significant amount of support from paramilitaries, the lower-class and the Venezuelan military, which has high-ranking officials embedded in his administration. The opposition is desperate and the government fears them to be complicit in a U.S.-organized coup – the country is heading away from a peaceful political solution towards civil war.
The road to the current crisis began in the early 20th century. Venezuela developed wealth quickly – but very unevenly – from its oil industry, causing deep class and race divisions. Hugo Chávez, a charismatic leftist leader of mixed race, capitalized on the discontent of the poor and gained electoral success – as well as the contempt of the political establishment and wealthy elites. Despite Chávez’s domination at the ballot box (he won his first election with over 50% of the vote), his legitimacy was repeatedly challenged by the opposition. According to The Guardian, the opposition used U.S. support to orchestrate a coup against him in 2002. Mass protests from his supporters saw him return to power in just 48 hours. In 2013, Chávez died from cancer and Maduro became heir to his political project. The opposition seized this opportunity to begin a movement aimed at forcing the new president from power, even though Venezuela’s economy was still flourishing due to high oil prices at the time.
Beginning under Chávez and continuing under Maduro, Venezuela’s economy was managed very poorly and without foresight. The wealth from the newly nationalized oil industry was used to lift the most vulnerable out of poverty but was not used to diversify the country’s economy. According to Aljazeera, oil accounted for 98% of Venezuela’s foreign earnings when oil prices plummeted in 2014. This led to a lack of foreign exchange, hyperinflation and the Venezuelan currency becoming almost worthless. U.S. economic sanctions against Venezuela then began under President Barack Obama in 2015 and have been greatly increased under President Donald Trump. The sanctions are designed to further cripple the economy, and thus cause more suffering for the Venezuelan people, in order to provoke them to remove Maduro.
The current course of interventionist policy being taken by the U.S. will not resolve the conflict peacefully – it is much more likely to lead to a violent military coup or civil war. This is largely because many Venezuelans see the U.S. as an enemy who wants access to their country’s vast natural resources. When one looks at the history of U.S. interaction with Venezuela and other Latin American nations, this view is understandable – in the 20th century, the United States was involved in overthrowing many Latin American governments, including those of Guatemala, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Bolivia, Jamaica, Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti, Argentina, and El Salvador. Some of these attempts were unsuccessful and some countries were targeted more than once. Most of the governments were left-wing, many of them democratically elected, and all were seen as a threat to U.S. hegemony or economic interests. In many instances, these regimes were replaced by horrifically brutal dictatorships which continued to enjoy U.S. support.
Last month, Elliott Abrams was appointed as U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, a man who had previously played a role in the U.S. coup against Chávez, was involved in the infamous illegal financing of Contra rebels in Nicaragua, and supported Central American death squads, according to The Guardian. When supporters of Maduro, or at least supporters of the political legacy he represents, see opposition leaders as having connections and endorsements from the U.S., they are more likely to see them as enemies. More pressingly, if Maduro and members of his administration see the opposition working with the U.S., then they are more likely to view themselves as legitimate in their growing authoritarian practices, which they may see as a necessary evil to protect their nation from the harm of U.S. interference.
The first step to solving Venezuela’s crisis is to remove all economic sanctions, and for foreign nations to stop recognizing Guaidó as the legitimate president. The U.S. should then acknowledge its lack of respect for Venezuelan sovereignty and pledge to remain neutral going forward. Pressure from other countries can be put on the U.S. to do this. The international community, with the exception of the U.S., should continue to urge Maduro to hold fresh elections and neutral countries should continue to try and facilitate mediation between the government and the opposition.
Aid should still be offered to alleviate the immediate suffering of the Venezuelan people. Once Maduro feels less threatened by the U.S., he might be more willing to accept it. The combination of aid and sanction relief would reduce the urgency of the situation and hopefully reduce the incentive of the military to stage a coup. As U.S. interference attempts fade away, Maduro will likely be more willing to negotiate in good faith with the opposition. Reducing the government’s fears over foreign-supported insurrection would also encourage less money to be wasted on military spending at a time when Venezuela is stockpiling Russian and Chinese arms.
Maduro has already stated he is willing to negotiate with the opposition and has reached out to a variety of countries, as well as the Pope, to mediate the process. Guaidó has rejected the offer to negotiate, claiming that Maduro has used insincere attempts to negotiate in the past as a means to stall for time and gain perceived legitimacy. The leader of the National Assembly should be encouraged by those who currently endorse him to engage in these negotiations. Without U.S. support he would feel that his position is weaker and would thus be more willing to negotiate. Even if he is correct in saying that Maduro is only looking to stall, when Guaidó’s only other option appears to be violent insurrection, there can be no harm in trying to talk.
Proceeding forwards, productive negotiations will focus on two main points. Firstly, working towards the goal of having the government restore the conditions necessary for free and fair elections, by releasing political prisoners and restoring the powers of the Legislative Assembly, for example. Secondly, agreeing to have the opposition distance itself from the influence and support of the U.S. The opposition clearly has more leverage to use in these negotiations than it has had in the past, so they are more likely to be fruitful.
Another topic of negotiation could be regarding the free passage of aid into Venezuela. Discussion could be used to persuade Maduro into accepting the aid, by highlighting that Maduro might be held accountable in the future if the blocking of aid causes easily preventable deaths.
In time, if Maduro successfully maintains the loyalty of the army, then Guaidó will hopefully accept that negotiation will be a necessary part of moving forward. But the longer this takes, the longer the crisis will continue and the more the people will suffer. If negotiation does not work, then it appears the conflict in Venezuela will only get worse.
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