In the lists of conflicts to watch in 2019 the usual suspects make an entry: Syria, Afghanistan and potential conflicts between the United States and China, or Iran. Some are ongoing conflicts that have caused great harm, while others are possible catastrophes that might happen. One of the potential conflicts discussed is Venezuela, a country that has collapsed economically and is undergoing a political crisis that has now escalated. The risk of a further escalation to armed conflict is very real. Some violent dissent has already taken place and has been brutally suppressed.
A small number of Venezuelans in exile have called for military intervention and leading hawks in the Trump administration have not ruled it out. Some of the country’s neighbours are furious at President Maduro’s government due to a flood of refugees fleeing impoverishment and food shortages. As it stands, the military continues to back a failing President, whose re-election in 2018 was dubious at best and followed a questionable one in 2013. In January of this year a new contender emerged from Venezuela’s fractious opposition: Juan Guaidó, the Chairman of the National Assembly of Venezuela. Mr Guaidó has declared himself as the interim President and called for new elections. This is at a time of ongoing protests over the plight of the country and its people.
Mr Maduro’s Presidency has been extremely harmful to Venezuela. He inherited the Presidency from his socialist mentor, Hugo Chavez, and since then has run the country into the ground. His years in power have seen him consolidate that power, curb political opposition and comprehensively wreck Venezuela’s economy, driving over three million people abroad as those that are left face the prospect of starvation. It is little wonder that people are on the streets, or that contenders such as Mr Guaidó are reduced to street politics. The problems besetting Venezuela are not new and had come to a head in 2014 but Mr Maduro has battled on, putting cronies in positions of power and taking care of the Generals. He has also blamed outside influences, including the United States, for Venezuela’s woes, the clarion call of many a failed government or regime. In fact, and not forgetting limited economic sanctions by the United States, the sources of Venezuela’s troubles are primarily domestic. Clearly, Maduro should go.
The crisis in Venezuela is one that is economic as well as political. There is the reliance on oil as the primary export and this makes the economy dependent on fluctuations in oil prices. This is exacerbated by loans undertaken in anticipation of future oil sales, a common problem when state-building and large oil reserves go together. The economy has been propped up by loans from China and Russia, while significant oil exports go to the United States. A decline in oil prices has effectively crippled the economy, while the social reforms championed by Hugo Chafez have drained the coffers, making everyone poorer in the long run.
Yet, as a crisis drives the country to the brink of armed conflict, the geopolitical divide of Maduro’s friends and enemies looms large on the horizon with competing narratives that we have heard before and are well worn. On his side are countries that include Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Cuba and Bolivia. Opposed are the United States, Canada, Australia and most South American governments. The EU has called for more elections although some members, such as the United Kingdom, have backed Mr Guaidó (a break in protocol as the UK recognises countries, not governments). The division is actually in the interests of no one, particularly the people most likely to suffer as a consequence: Venezuelans. There has been the expected sabre-rattling from the United States and Russia, the latter flying in two Tupolev bombers to make a point, while Washington’s hawks have hinted at ‘consequences’. For either to become involved militarily in Venezuela would be foolhardy and counterproductive. Their characteristic bluster is unhelpful. Foreign governments would do well to follow the policy that the British themselves failed to follow: recognise countries, not governments. Ultimately, Venezuelans should choose their leader. The current crisis has occurred because the incumbent leader has ignored the established rules in the country for electing its leader and changed the structure of governance to ensure that he remains in power, despite a catastrophic economic and social collapse.
An exit is not difficult, the opposition has said that Maduro can leave and there is only hubris to justify his staying in place. It is one thing to berate the likes of the United States and EU, or choose to be in an alternative political order alongside the likes of Russia and China, but rejecting regional cooperation by announcing the intent to leave the Organisation of American States is another. Nor can one claim to have won an election when the opposition is banned from participating as this amounts to rubber stamping the result before the election is held. Should Maduro leave then Mr Guaidó becomes an interim President only and it is down to him to ensure that elections are held. It is then down to the newly elected President and their government to set about making economic reforms and accept the aid that will put Venezuela on its feet.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.