On Sunday, pro-government lawmakers in Venezuela announced the swearing-in of a new president of the National Assembly after barring several opposition congressmen, including leader Juan Guaidó, from entering the legislative building. Guaidó is the incumbent National Assembly President and was presumed to win reelection to the position. Instead, he and other legislators from his party were prevented from entering the proceedings, and according to CNN, “a little-known congressman named Luis Parra, was named to the role by a skeleton assembly of pro-government lawmakers.” Outside, Guaidó attempted to climb a fence to enter the legislative building, joined by several other opposition lawmakers, only to be met with security forces equipped with riot gear. Inside, the situation was just as chaotic with shouts and fistfights occurring in the chamber. The opposition members prevented from entering held their own, separate election at the office of newspaper El Nacional, re-electing Guaidó speaker.
In a discussion with CNN, Guaidó said: “This is yet another proof that we live under a dictatorship, as if anyone had any doubt. Nevertheless, we are going to do what we need to do and install the sole legitimate national assembly.” In talking to state media outlets, Luis Parra took a different stance. “Here today it is demonstrated that the constitutional process has a time, a date and a specific place, those excuses of not attending…I think we left them behind,” he said before adding that “This institution is not Juan Guaidó, who represents the past, it’s a [legislative body] with lawmakers that have the right to vote and disagree.” President Nicolas Maduro recognized Parra’s leadership after the vote, but the United States, who recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela last year, did not. The State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs tweeted Sunday that Guaidó “remains Venezuela’s interim president under its constitution. This morning’s phony national assembly session lacked a legal quorum. There was no vote.” Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister and a Maduro supporter, responded by tweeting, “We reject the Trump Administration’s vulgar interventionism in Venezuela’s internal affairs & institutions. They still don’t understand that we’re an independent and sovereign country.”
The actions of the pro-Maduro forces in Venezuela are contrary to the principles of any purportedly free or democratic society. A vote for leadership where the other party is barred from entering by riot police is not a vote; it is a sham meant to block out any potential opposition to the actions of one party, and any leader elected in such a fashion is illegitimate. Venezuela faces a difficult decision as Maduro is a dictator and therefore, would be tremendously challenging to enter into some sort of agreement with that would still benefit the country. On the other hand, a civil war simply cannot be an option due to the tremendous human cost of such a deadly choice. The continued political disobedience of Guaidó and his supporters has earned them the respect and recognition of the international community. That is the most valuable asset they have right now, but they must continue this fight peacefully and politically, not through violence. Whatever the solution becomes, it cannot be a civil war.
President Nicolas Maduro came to power in 2013. Some describe him as a dictator, with reports of crimes against humanity committed under his leadership and a plummeting economy. On January 5th 2019, Juan Guaidó was elected President of the National Assembly and on January 23rd declared himself acting President of Venezuela and the presidency of Maduro illegitimate amidst the country’s chaos. Guaidó received recognition and support from dozens of countries, including the United States, in the wake of this announcement. According to Al Jazeera, in late December, U.S Special Envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams “accused Maduro of trying to block the re-election by bribing the deputies with up to $500,000.” Similarly, Parra currently faces allegations of corruption despite his election as President of the National Assembly.
Given the already contentious situation in Venezuela, it is difficult to predict how this further divergence of government into two separate bodies competing for power and both declaring legitimacy will end. It becomes a question of whether or not they can reconcile these divisions without some sort of more formal separation. Guaidó is recognized by a fair amount of the world’s most powerful actors as the legitimate ruler of Venezuela, but whether or not that power is enough of a deterrent remains to be seen. Regardless, it is imperative that the situation in Venezuela does not devolve into any further violence than it has already, especially not a civil war. That would be far more detrimental than any agreement or formal separation the two opposing forces could reach.