A Short, Simple Primer on What’s Happening in Venezuela

A Short, Simple Primer on What’s Happening in Venezuela

If you are wondering why Venezuela is back on the front pages, why the Trump administration is making such a big fuss about it, and why observers seem so anxious about the country’s political crisis, then this primer is for you.

There are three immediate reasons, all related to a political crisis that has been building in the country for years.

First, there were nationwide protests against the government on Wednesday. They were the first large-scale demonstrations since the president, Nicolás Maduro, reacted to the last round of large demonstrations, in 2017, with a deadly crackdown.

Second, an opposition lawmaker named Juan Guaidó declared the current government illegitimate and announced that he would be willing to lead a caretaker government. On its own, Mr. Guaidó’s statement can’t force any real change. But it has heightened speculation that the military could push out the government.

Third, the United States and several other governments in the Western Hemisphere have announced that they consider Mr. Guaidó to be Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

The short version: Venezuela’s government has overseen the destruction of its democracy and its economy. Public outrage is coming to a head.

Venezuela was once Latin America’s richest country and one of its longest-running democracies.

Today, it is nearly a failed state. Runaway inflation has plunged much of the country into desperate poverty. Food and drug shortages are widespread. Public order is collapsing and crime rising. More than three million Venezuelans have fled the country, many as refugees.

Public anger is over more than corruption and mismanagement of the economy. The government is aggressively consolidating power and undermining democratic institutions, leaving Venezuelans without meaningful avenues for challenging or changing their leadership. So, many are taking to the streets to try to force change.

The most immediate trigger was the inauguration ceremony this month for President Nicolás Maduro. He won re-election in May in a vote that has been widely criticized within Venezuela and abroad as rigged.

Since that vote, opposition figures and foreign governments, including many in Latin America, have called Mr. Maduro’s leadership illegitimate. Protesters came out after Mr. Maduro’s inauguration to send the same message, hoping to pressure him to step down.

But in many ways, this is just the latest step in a crisis that has been getting steadily worse for years.

So Mr. Maduro simply printed more money. This drove up inflation, making basic goods unaffordable, so he instituted price controls and fixed the exchange rate. This caused shortages and made many imports prohibitively expensive. Businesses shut down. Food and medicine became scarce.

This cycle sent many Venezuelans into poverty. Many members of the police and military, who were also struggling to feed their families, turned to black marketeering. Gangs took control of city streets and the murder rate spiked to become one of the world’s highest.

Maybe, but probably not by any major degree.

There is some research suggesting that a government becomes more likely to fall if people in that country view the leader as having lost international legitimacy. And Washington’s recognition of Mr. Guaidó, the opposition figure, as the country’s legitimate president may give him access to some Venezuelan assets that had been frozen in the United States.

Still, it was already crystal clear that President Trump’s government opposed Mr. Maduro and wanted him out, so this is not a major shift. The same goes for other Latin American countries that have recognized Mr. Guaidó.

Despite some American officials hinting at a willingness to consider military force to bring down Mr. Maduro, the whispers appear unlikely to turn into action. Such an intervention would take months to execute and has no real support in the American military, the electorate or in Congress. It is not even clear what military action would be meant to accomplish or how it would do this, and it would virtually guarantee a major backlash internationally and within Venezuela.

There are two sets of actors who could force Mr. Maduro to step down.

The first includes members of Mr. Maduro’s own government, though the crisis has grown so bad that many of them probably fear prison or worse should they lose power. And they would lose their access to handouts, sending them into the same bread lines as everyone else.

The second would be members of the Venezuelan military, which Mr. Maduro has, perhaps wisely, avoided ordering to crack down on protesters. Some low-level officers have moved against Mr. Maduro, but the rest have remained loyal. The military benefits tremendously from the status quo; Mr. Maduro has allowed them to take control of black marketeering and some trade in natural resources.

If neither group removes Mr. Maduro and he refuses to step down, it is very hard to say what will happen. History provides few obvious parallels.

On one hand, with the situation spiraling out of control, it feels impossible that the status quo could continue. On the other, the same could have been said one, two or even three years ago, and yet Venezuela has continued its steady, tragic decline.

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