Over the past week the lives of millions of Venezuelans, both home and abroad, have been rocked by a string of events that increasingly seem to be garnering momentous importance. For more than a decade Venezuelans have faced a daily battle when they look even for the most elementary products – flour, sugar, toilet paper, not to speak of insulin or penicillin – not only trying to circumvent the constant shortage but, more recently, also trying to cope with the daily hike of prices. Used to adventure in the most perverse of senses, the people of Venezuela are not easily swayed, but since the days leading up to January 23 the hostility against the country’s inept and corrupt government has become dramatically more vocal – so much so that the situation has come to a head.
In Latin America, politics is often characterised by implausible, surreal situations, but even by the most lenient standards the current scenario in Venezuela is bizarre. After a resounding triumph in the parliamentary elections of 2015, the country’s opposition prepared to hold a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro, who had come to power amid strong claims of electoral fraud in the 2013 presidential elections.
In 2016 Maduro used his influence to prevent the referendum from taking place, but a U-turn in the behaviour of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, until now blindly loyal to Chávez’s regime, removed him from power and called new elections. Maduro, still the de facto president, responded by embarking on the drafting of a new constitution, effectively dissolving parliament and creating a parallel support structure. Since then, Venezuela has had two Supreme Courts – one in exile, in Panama, and one in Caracas – two parliaments, and two constitutions, one drafted by Hugo Chávez in 1999 and one hastily put together in 2018.
That same year Maduro called new elections, in accordance with the new constitution, but by then everyone had lost faith in the government’s commitment to a transparent vote. The opposition, insisting on the illegality of the whole process, refused to take part in it, pointing out instead that Maduro’s original presidential term would come to an end on January 10, 2019. According to the 1999 constitution, the power vacuum produced by the absence of a president is filled by the president of parliament, who automatically becomes president of the republic and is charged with the task of calling new elections within 30 days. Consequently, since the beginning of January Venezuela also has two presidents.
History, Not Quite Repeated
Uncannily, none of the elements that build this complex situation are unprecedented. Claims of rigged elections in Venezuela are as old as the democratic system, and even in the pre-Chávez era it was a well-known platitude that “tally sheets trump votes”, in reference to the official record of votes used in manual counting, which, it was said, could easily be forged or adulterated. Even Chávez, whose strongest point was campaigning, is said to have flipped the results of the 2004 recall referendum, giving him instead of the opposition 58% of the votes. In response, the parliamentary elections of 2005, like the general elections of 2018, were boycotted by the opposition, a move which back then proved disastrous, as it enabled Chávez to pass a series of radical reforms practically unopposed.
Indeed, even Maduro’s move to draft a new constitution echoes Chávez’s own creation of a “Constituent Assembly” in 1999, which essentially closed the book on Venezuela’s Fourth Republic (1830–1999). Similarly, the huge rallies that have swarmed Venezuela’s streets periodically over the past four years are reminiscent of the sort of backlash Chávez faced in the early years of his first term, between 2002 and 2005.
One difference between the current situation and anything the Venezuelan people faced over the past twenty years might be that at the end of the twentieth century Chávez was given a vote of confidence to bring much needed change to a country mired in social and economic difficulties. Nicolás Maduro, on the other hand, has faced antagonism from the start of his reign, both from the Venezuelan people and from within his own party.
However significant this might be, it isn’t the key aspect in the current constellation. Instead, the distinguishing factor, and likely the catalyst for change in Venezuela in the near future, points towards the lead member of the country’s opposition and current interim president, Juan Guaidó, a politician the likes of which Venezuela has not seen for many years.
Who Is the Interim President?
Just a few weeks ago, the name Juan Guaidó was unknown to all but the keenest experts in Venezuelan politics. A young member of parliament, he won the seat to his hometown in Vargas, the coastal state just north of the capital, in the 2015 parliamentary elections, but he wasn’t among the prominent opposition leaders who in April 2017 orchestrated the protests that brought the country to a standstill.
Far from problematic, his low public profile was likely the main contributing factor when he was chosen in December 2018 to become the next president of parliament. For years Venezuelans have expressed their frustration at the uninspiring nature of the country’s opposition leaders – a situation that harks back to the days of Chávez, who famously taunted his rivals by asking, “opposition? What opposition?” In more recent times, a scathing slogan has become popular among detractors of the government, who insist they “want to end chavismo, but the opposition won’t allow it.”
Undoubtedly, there was an element of gamesmanship in just about everything Chávez ever said in public, but if the Venezuelan opposition has been harshly criticised by all sectors of society it’s largely because since 2006, when a plethora of rival political parties came under a single umbrella with the sole purpose of defeating chavismo, it has proven impotent, unimaginative and most of all ineffective. Never has this become more apparent than in 2017, when widespread discontent boiled over, spontaneously and in unison, across the whole country. Despite the tremendous courage and perseverance exhibited by the Venezuelan people over the course of several weeks of protests – and the repression they prompted from government forces – the unitary opposition was unable to translate so much energy, so much determination, into palpable results.
Guaidó’s nomination as president of parliament carried an air of desperation about it, a tacit recognition that the people who over the past decade have been at the centre of Venezuelan politics – from Antonio Ledesma to Enrique Capriles, Leopoldo López or Maria Corina Machado – had grown stale. If the appointment of a young representative was meant to bring a breath of fresh air, though, Juan Guiadó has actually swept into the scene with a gust of levelheadedness that has exceeded every expectation. In one month under his tutelage, Venezuela’s effete parliament has galvanised public support and inspired a tired people into, once more, taking to the streets. He has had the courage to step into the front line and call out the Maduro government not just for its atrocious handling of the country’s affairs, not just for its horrendous track record of corruption and mismanagement, but actually for the legal wrangling in which it has engaged to usurp and perpetuate itself in power.
The Time Is Now
Venezuela’s overall situation has deteriorated so significantly over the last decade that it has become the focus of attention of international diplomacy on both sides of the Atlantic. More than 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country, raising social issues in neighbouring nations, with incidents in Brazil, Peru and most recently Ecuador striking a particularly crude note. Malnutrition and poor sanitary conditions have caused a humanitarian crisis in a country that for years has featured near the top of the list of homicides per capita – only in 2018 there were more than 23,000 violent deaths in Venezuela.
Infrastructure has been neglected on all levels, from dilapidated hospitals to collapsing bridges. The highly profitable oil industry has been hit by continuous maintenance issues, with costly incidents claiming both human lives and shrinking capacity to approximately half the production it once boasted. The country’s economy has been wrecked by hyper inflation, the sort of which could only be compared to Germany’s in the 1930s – and we all know how that ended.
Juan Guaidó is no magician, and the sort of troubles plaguing Venezuela cannot be wished away, but his sudden emergence at the helm of the country’s opposition has brought momentum to a cause that seemed doomed, after the mass protests of 2017 petered out. In part, he has profited from previous failures, as the international community has been forced to acknowledge the urgent nature of Venezuela’s problems. Like all things urgent, though, these problems must be solved right now, not just because the next stage of deterioration would poison the entire region, but because totalitarian regimes must be unseated while they are still vulnerable – otherwise they morph into the structures of power. Venezuelans the world over hope it hasn’t come to that yet.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday February 2, 2019.