Venezuela back in the spotlight after physical struggle for Congress

. Jan 08, 2020
Venezuela back in the spotlight after physical struggle for Congress Venezuela's National Assembly. Photo: via Fotos Públicas

The twists and turns of Venezuelan politics show no signs of letting up in 2020. On Tuesday, supporters of opposition leader Juan Guaidó stormed the National Assembly building in Caracas, swearing in President Nicolás Maduro’s adversary for a second term as congressional speaker—which, in Mr. Guaidó’s estimations, allows him to continue as the self-proclaimed interim president of Venezuela.

This came only two days after pro-Maduro congressman Luis Parra was himself sworn in as speaker of the National Assembly, while Mr. Guaidó and his acolytes were blocked from entering parliament by security forces.

</p> <p>The opposition called Mr. Parra&#8217;s maneuver a &#8220;parliamentary coup,&#8221; and after Tuesday&#8217;s events, Venezuela now has two different presidents, and two different heads of the legislature—depending on who you speak to.</p> <p>After the turbulence of the first half of 2019, the power struggle in Venezuela appeared to have simmered down. This week&#8217;s events prove that the pot has been brought back to the boil.</p> <h2>Guaidó&#8217;s fight to remain relevant</h2> <p>Despite being recognized as the rightful head of state by at least 50 other countries—including Brazil and the U.S.—Juan Guaidó&#8217;s influence in Venezuela appeared to be sputtering. A failed coup attempt and grandstanding efforts to cross the Colombia-Venezuela border with humanitarian aid reportedly supplied by the U.S. saw his image weaken as opposed to strengthening. Venezuela began falling off the front page of the international press and Nicolás Maduro managed to cling to power.&nbsp;</p> <p>Events around South America didn&#8217;t help matters. Between August and November, political and social crises spread across the continent’s Andean spine, with the dissolution of Congress in Peru, general strikes in Ecuador, a military coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia, a massive wave of protests in Chile, and even demonstrations against the government in Colombia.&nbsp;</p> <p>With no new developments in Caracas, the byzantine collapse of the country somehow became less newsworthy.&nbsp;</p> <p>In January 2019, Juan Guaidó&#8217;s unexpected uprising threw the dispirited population into an uncertain sea of expectation and seemed to ramp up the threats to President Nicolás Maduro&#8217;s now seven-year-long leadership. But with both Mr. Maduro and Mr. Guaidó standing still, Venezuela continued its slump to become the longest-lasting calamity case in Latin America, with expected inflation rates of 200,000 percent in 2019 and over four million citizens fleeing the country since 2014, according to the UN Refugee Agency.&nbsp;</p> <p>Opponents to Nicolás Maduro looked to the apparent &#8220;heroism&#8221; of the emerging Mr. Guaidó as the solution for Venezuela&#8217;s tragedy, as a political figure who held good relations with the country&#8217;s neighbors as well as the U.S.&nbsp;</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1958731"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. imposed severe sanctions on Venezuela&#8217;s oil industry, mainly to put pressure on President Maduro to step down. This came as a further shock to Venezuela&#8217;s already precarious economy, which is 96 percent dependent on foreign currency from oil exports. From 2018 to 2019, amid the oil sanctions, the U.S. went from buying almost 500 thousand barrels a day to less than 100 thousand, according to a report from energy market researcher Kpler.&nbsp;</p> <p>The initial excitement surrounding Juan Guaidó dissipated, however. “The political crisis in Venezuela has been around for at least 20 years. And there are always some moments of &#8216;O.K., now something is going to happen,&#8217; with slight opposition growth and potential to overthrow or weaken the Chavista government. When it doesn&#8217;t happen, like in 2019, a great feeling of frustration follows,” says Venezuelan journalist Paula Ramón, speaking to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.&nbsp;</p> <p>Though Mr. Guaidó has gone further than any previous opposition leaders, the script was similar. After generating huge popular outrage, allegedly calling on the military to forcibly remove Mr. Maduro, the self-proclaimed head of state ended up closer to prison than power.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>“All the peaks of disappointment that Venezuela has been living since [the 2013 death of former President Hugo] Chávez—with this sense of near change—began to be seen outside of our borders,&#8221; says Ms. Ramón. &#8220;Now, the world understands what it is like to live inside a continuing crisis. This situation of permanent chaos can easily eliminate opposition figures.”</p> <h2>A continent with an eye on Venezuela</h2> <p>The press was not alone in shifting attention away from the Venezuelan case. Back in February, governments around the Americas were engaged in intense discussions on how to address the crisis, organized by the multilateral Lima Group, founded in 2014 with 14 foreign ministries promising a “peaceful and negotiated solution” to the instability in Caracas.&nbsp;</p> <p>The majority of Lima Group members supported Mr. Guaidó&#8217;s claim to the Venezuelan presidency, including U.S. VP Mike Pence and former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who even considered a military solution to overthrow Mr. Maduro. In April, Mr. Pence said “all options&#8221; were on the table.</p> <p>Juan Guaidó’s legitimacy is not a consensus in the region. Uruguay and Mexico sat on the fence, refusing to support either Mr. Maduro or his challenger.&nbsp;</p> <p>Brazil cut diplomatic ties with Nicolás Maduro&#8217;s government in 2017 under then-President Michel Temer, which has been continued by current head of state Jair Bolsonaro. When center-left President Dilma Rousseff was ousted in 2016 in a contentious impeachment process, Brazilian ambassador Ruy Carlos Pereira was declared<em> persona non grata</em> by Caracas. In retaliation, Brazil did the same with Venezuela&#8217;s commercial attaché Gerardo Antonio Delgado Maldonado.&nbsp;</p> <p>Brazil began to move more and more against Chavismo, using prior relations as a stick to beat left-wing opponents. The far-right Bolsonaro government went as far as meeting with Maria Teresa Belandria, Juan Guaidó’s ambassador in Brasilia.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Are Maduro&#8217;s days numbered?</h2> <p>After decades of surfing the wave of the <a href="">2000s commodity boom</a>, coinciding with the rise to power of popular President Hugo Chávez during Latin America’s &#8220;pink tide,&#8221; Venezuela had expected to extend its golden era.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to the National Institute of Statistics, in 1999, about 20.1 percent of Venezuelans lived in extreme poverty. Twelve years later, that rate had fallen to 9.5 percent. However, as Mr. Chávez’s solid leadership gradually moved toward authoritarianism, the economy struggled, partly due to external factors.</p> <p>In 2013, after Hugo Chávez’s death, former Foreign Affairs Minister Nicolás Maduro took the reins, as oil prices plummeted on the international market.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) stated that Venezuela reached extraction levels of 3.2 million barrels per day in 2009. In 2019, crude oil extraction—accounting for 96 percent of the country&#8217;s revenue—fell to its worst level in 30 years, at 912,000 barrels per day. As oil production went down, migration, unemployment, poverty, and social problems went up.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>With Venezuela at rock bottom, diplomatically isolated, criticized by major human rights NGOs and the <a href="">United Nations</a>, what is keeping Nicolás Maduro in power? According to Paula Ramón, the reach of the Chavistas has grown to be almost irreversible.&nbsp;</p> <p>“Despite criticism, Chavismo is a political force and this cannot be denied. There are critics, but there is still support. Besides, they have been in power for 20 years, which makes them a force rooted in all spheres of power: the judiciary, city halls, state governments… Wherever you look, there they are,” she says.&nbsp;</p> <p>The IMF says Venezuela&#8217;s GDP is expected to have shrunk 35 percent in 2019, one of the world’s worst performers. Even so, Mr. Maduro remains, and Juan Guaidó seems unable to take the power he has claimed for himself. As things stand, the country has two presidents, but very few prospects.

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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