A case study on Venezuela is anticipated as part of our project, from one of our national collaborators, Raul Sanchez Urribari.
Ahead of his working papers, background on the situation in Venezuela can be read in these two recent articles republished from The Conversation.
Venezuela: US sanctions hurt, but the economic crisis is home grown
There appear to be two distinct responses to the current crisis in Venezuela. Either an authoritarian regime (led by Nicolás Maduro) is clinging to power against the wishes of popular forces arrayed around the new self-declared interim President Juan Guaidó. Or Venezuela is facing a coup backed by US imperialism with clear designs on the country’s huge oil reserves.
As with most complex situations, neither of these narratives fully captures what is going on. Indeed, for the majority of Venezuelans – thousands of whom have again taken to the streets across the country in peaceful demonstrations – ideological epithets pale in comparison to the economic impact they are experiencing in their daily lives.
Many face hunger, seeing family members flee the country (upwards of 3m have left the country) and rampant hyperinflation (predicted by the International Monetary Fund to reach an astronomical 10,000,000% in 2019).
And make no mistake – despite the much publicised US sanctions, the economic crisis in Venezuela is home grown. The government’s attempt to set prices for basic goods, maintain currency and exchange controls and regulate profits has decimated domestic production.
It has also strengthened black markets and encouraged the smuggling of everything from meat to nappies over the border with Colombia – a trade which has became an everyday survival strategy for thousands of Venezuelans.
Maduro’s government has been peddling the line of an “economic war” for over four years. It even denies inflation actually exists, while printing more money to pay for increases in a minimum wage that doesn’t even cover the cost of a dozen eggs.
In a recent television interview, Maduro blamed the supposed economic war when asked about a rate of 3% inflation per day in 2018. He also also expressed a willingness to hold talks with his political rival Guaidó – while also somewhat ominously stating that 50,000 civilian militia members with access to weapons were on stand by to “defend the peace”.
Sanctions that have been in place since 2017 have exacerbated the economic crisis, but were not successful in an attempt to force Maduro out of power. Yet, paradoxically, the very public US backing of Guaidó has increased the plausibility of Maduro’s claim – because with added sanctions now in place designed to restrict food supplies and oil equipment, that economic war has become very real.
The fact that this is a home grown crisis it not lost on the people taking to the streets. So it can seem surprising that some angry Venezuelans don’t welcome internationally supported regime change. Still others maintain steadfast supporters of “Chavismo” – the political movement named after the late president Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor. “Chavismo” still carries significant weight among activists anxious to defend “la patria” (the fatherland) from any external intervention.
Let’s take one salient example. The agricultural commune “El Maizal”, located between the states of Lara and Portuguesa, is perhaps the most successful worker run cooperative still struggling for their vision of 21st-century socialism. While extremely critical of the “corruption, bureaucracy and clientelism” that pervades the government, the commune’s Twitter feed expresses the militant sentiment of a people prepared to rise up against the perceived threat of “Yankee imperialism”.
With memories of the failed US backed attempt to oust Chávez in 2002, suggestions of an externally backed coup in 2019 have clear traction. This is given further credence by the fact that the White House allegedly knew Guaidó was going to declare himself interim president on January 23 – a move which took other Venezuelan politicians by surprise, and in a country where a reported 81% of the population had never heard of the young politician.
Domestically, for the moment, the Venezuelan military appears to be holding the trump card, with just one high ranking military official so far rebelling against Maduro. But the geopolitical fault lines are also significant.
China and Russia, owed billions for pre-paid oil deliveries and other loans, have backed Maduro, along with Cuba and Turkey. The majority of Latin American countries (except Mexico, Uruguay and Bolivia) and the EU (except Italy) have followed the US in recognising Guaidó, and called for new elections.
As the crisis continues, financial pressures have been ramped up. The UK is refusing to release US$1.2 billion of Venezuela’s gold reserves and the US has deepened sanctions, and seized assets in an attempt to divert funds to Guaidó’s nascent parallel government.
That the legal foundations of Guaidó’s claim – including his own “democratic” credentials – are tenuous at best should not cloud us from the mass mobilisations calling for Maduro to go.
A negotiated transition that brings all sides to the table for future elections has been suggested as the only way out of this polarised stand off. This option would appear to be favoured by large numbers of Venezuelans who appear unimpressed by either of the men setting themselves up to lead, proclaiming to be with neither one nor the other: “Ni con uno ni con otro!”.
Venezuela crisis explained: a tale of two presidents
Venezuela finds itself with two presidents engaged in a high-stakes game to control the country’s future. The country has also had two “national assemblies” and many questions about how the constitution should be applied. So, how did it find itself in this position?
On January 23 2019, Juan Guaidó, one month after becoming president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, disputed Maduro’s legitimacy and declared the presidency vacant. He then took an oath to serve as the interim president of Venezuela.
Guaidó v Maduro
Although involved in politics since 2009, Guaidó was until recently little known outside political circles. A member of the Voluntad Popular (“Popular Will”) party, he was an understudy to Leopoldo López, the party’s leader who is currently imprisoned for allegedly encouraging violent protests seeking the ousting of Maduro.
The 1999 Bolivarian Constitution, written in the first year of the administration of former president Hugo Chávez, fulfilled a promise Chávez made in his successful 1998 presidential campaign to replace the constitution of 1991. Most Venezuelans had come to see the earlier constitution as a democratic façade, serving the interests of a corrupt, wealthy ruling elite that controlled the only two parties with any chance of winning power through elections.
Maduro was Chávez’s vice president and the clear choice to succeed Chávez after his death in March 2013, only five months after winning an election for a third term. Elections during the Chávez years were criticized by observers, such as the Carter Center, for the government favoritism in the campaigns, but most saw the vote count as honest.
Chávez won easily due to strong support among the country’s poor majority, who benefited from social programs funded by the country’s oil bounty – which, before Chávez, had mostly gone to the wealthy and middle class.
Maduro’s unusual elections
The Maduro era has seen more questions arise about the fairness of campaigns, but also about official results. Despite Chavez’s blessing, Maduro barely won the special election to replace the deceased leader, winning only 50.6% of the vote.
In December 2015 Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) suffered a severe defeat in the National Assembly elections of December 2015. The opposition won a super majority of seats, enough to undo the programs of the Chávez era. Much of the opposition had participated in a failed coup in 2002 and never accepted the 1999 constitution – but all now embraced it as a tool to try to remove Maduro.
They gathered enough signatures to force a recall election upon Maduro, but the PSUV used delaying tactics to ensure that an opposition win would result in the vice president taking over. The recall effort faded away.
The opposition-controlled National Assembly began to act to slow or end Chavez’s programs and to limit Maduro’s power. The country’s Supreme Court, filled with PSUV appointees, used a dispute over the election of three assembly deputies to rule that the body was unconstitutionally abusing its power and threatened to close the unicameral Congress down.
A legislature stripped of its powers
Maduro instead decided to convene a new National Constituent Assembly (NCA) to rewrite the constitution and create what Chávez himself had called the “communal state”. This state would theoretically shift much power over policies and state spending (generated almost entirely by oil exports) to local and regional citizens’ councils.
To do this, Maduro used a vague phrase in Article 348 of the constitution that says: “The initiative for calling a National Constituent Assembly may emanate from the President of the Republic sitting with the Cabinet of Ministers.”
The opposition refused to participate in the election (turnout was 41%) of delegates to the NCA – as a result it is almost entirely composed of Maduro supporters. On August 8 2017 the NCA took legislative powers for itself, away from the National Assembly, under Article 349 of the existing constitution, which is intended to avoid obstruction of a constitutional assembly’s work.
Venezuela’s electoral authorities scheduled the May 2018 presidential election half a year early. Though constitutional, the timing made it difficult for the deeply divided opposition to choose its candidate. A large faction boycotted the vote; another backed a candidate, the governor of an important state.
Maduro won with 67.8%. The turnout was 46.7%, low by Venezuelan standards. Maduro claims this election makes him the legitimate president and accuses the opposition, the United States and other foreign governments of fomenting a coup.
Guaidó claims to be the constitutional interim president after the National Assembly declared the presidency to be “vacant” under Article 233 of the constitution, which allows for an interim president to replace a sitting president “upon abandonment of his position, duly declared by the National Assembly”.
Guaidó defends his action as a constitutional route out of the country’s economic and political crises – and his move has been endorsed by much of the mainstream news media in liberal democracies. Maduro has highlighted that he won an election – and Guaidó has not. Guaidó promised he would call elections once he has actual control of government.
Why did both presidents try so hard to justify their status as “constitutional” when almost everyone agrees the military holds the keys to power? For one thing, many in the military feel it’s their job to uphold the constitution. And both sides wanted to appeal to international public opinion.
Both sides wanted the support of Venezuelans in the poor urban neighborhoods and countryside, who see the 1999 constitution as guaranteeing their right, won under Chavez, to be politically included in determining the country’s future.