On January 23, the leader of the Venezuelan national legislature, Juan Guaido, declared himself transitional president and said he would assume the powers of the executive branch from then onwards. The move directly challenged the power of President Nicolas Maduro, who had been sworn in to a second six-year term in office just two weeks previously. Since then, a major crisis has ensued in the country whose end remains unpredictable but clearly threatens the stability of the country, and potentially puts it on the edge of a civil war.
Maduro was first elected in April 2013 for a six-year term after the death of his socialist mentor and predecessor in office, Hugo Chavez. Although the country was beginning to experience serious economic challenges before the death of Chavez, it has witnessed a downward spiral in its economy and politics since 2014. Skyrocketing hyperinflation, power cuts and shortages of food and medicine have become prevalent under Maduro’s watch. The annual inflation rate reached 1,300,000 per cent in 2017. In August 2018, the government lopped five zeros off the old “bolivar” currency. Although it reduced the amount of cash people had to carry, it was not enough to arrest inflation. By the end of 2018, prices were doubling every 19 days on the average. The currency continued to fall and minimum wage increases proved to be of not avail. This has left many Venezuelans struggling to afford basic items such as food and toiletries. Since 2014 when the economic crisis started to bite harder, more than three million Venezuelans have left the country in search of greener pastures, according to United Nations’ figures.
Growing political discontent exploded into widespread demonstrations and protests against Maduro’s rule after he won a controversial election for a second term in 2018. The crisis has strengthened the opposition that had sought to unseat Maduro. Although he was sworn in for the second term in January, the National Assembly and its leadership has insisted that the election was not free and fair and as such described Maduro as a “usurper” and declared the presidency vacant. The National Assembly, citing articles 233 and 333 of Venezuela’s constitution, insisted that the head of the National Assembly must take over as acting president. That is why Guaido declared himself acting president on January 23. But Maduro has maintained that he is the rightfully elected president of Venezuela. Maduro has strengthened his hold on power by cultivating the loyalty of the military through pay rise and appointment of military officers to head government agencies and industries. He had in 2017 undermined the National Assembly by setting up a Constituent Assembly filled with government loyalists.
He went further to break off relations within the United States when US President Donald Trump officially recognised Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela minutes after the latter declared that he had assumed executive powers as transitional president. He subsequently gave US diplomats 72 hours to leave Venezuela. But Venezuela is dependent on the US for 41 per cent of its oil revenue. On January 29, the US imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil firm, saying proceeds of the purchase of Venezuelan oil would now be withheld from Maduro’s government. While Guaido counts on the support of the US, countries in the European Union, and a number of Latin American countries, Maduro banks on Russia, China, Turkey and their friends for support. Russia has condemned foreign support for Guaido, saying it violates international law and is a “direct path to bloodshed.” The stage is therefore set for another proxy war. Now, there is a foreboding stalemate in the country. Those opposed to the government are celebrating Guaido’s move and carrying out a series of demonstrations to call Maduro to step down. In fact, Guaido has called on those opposed to President Maduro and his government to continue protesting “until Venezuela is liberated”. On the other hand, the Maduro government officials have committed to defending the president from “imperialist threats”.
We call on both the government and opposition leaders in Venezuela to be wary of the pressure to resort to the use of arms in seeking to achieve their objectives. They should take every opportunity available to dialogue and seek a political and peaceful resolution to the imbroglio. Happily, a window of opportunity has been suggested by a group of university professors who called for a peaceful end to the stalemate. They have referred to the relevant portions of the constitution of Venezuela to seek options for avoiding bloodshed. They have asked that a referendum be called to ask Venezuelan citizens whether to conduct fresh presidential and National Assembly elections, on terms to be agreed by representatives of Maduro’s government and the opposition, with the oversight of the United Nations; or set up an independent expert commission, of limited duration, with representatives from both government, the opposition and the international community to define a strategy to alleviate the crisis in the country.
We call on the international community to support the contending parties in the country to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis. The United Nations should also work towards preventing foreign intervention either in the name of the government or the opposition.