What Is Happening in Venezuela? How It Got Here and Why It Matters
Just two weeks after President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela was sworn in for a second term, an opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, declared himself the interim president, directly challenging the country’s leadership.
Tens of thousands of protesters rallied across the country on Wednesday in support of Mr. Guaidó, and the United States, Canada and many Latin American countries quickly recognized him as the legitimate head of state.
Mr. Maduro, in return, severed remaining diplomatic ties with the United States and ordered its embassy personnel out of the country within 72 hours, a deadline the Americans said they would ignore.
“I am the only president of Venezuela,” Mr. Maduro told the country, speaking from the balcony of the presidential palace on Wednesday. “We do not want to return to the 20th century of gringo interventions and coups d’état.”
Here is how Venezuela arrived at this moment.
How has Nicolás Maduro held on to power?
Mr. Maduro, who assumed the presidency after the death of his mentor, Hugo Chávez, in 2013, has overseen a drastic unraveling of the economy in Venezuela — once one of the region’s most prosperous countries — largely as a result of mismanagement and corruption.
But he has centralized power in the executive branch, tamping down on dissent through violence and intimidation, and winning the loyalty of the military by giving it control of lucrative industries.
In 2017, as protests mounted, Mr. Maduro sidelined the opposition-controlled legislature, the National Assembly, by ordering the creation of a new legislative body, known as the Constituent Assembly, which was asked to rewrite the Constitution. He jailed prominent members of the opposition, leaving it largely ineffective for many months.
In May 2018, Mr. Maduro won re-election to a new six-year term in the midst of a financial and humanitarian crisis. Coercion and vote rigging were widely reported. By the time of his inauguration on Jan. 10, many countries did not recognize his new term as legitimate, including the United States, Canada and a dozen Latin American nations.
Who is Juan Guaidó?
He has long been a critic of Mr. Maduro and Mr. Chávez, becoming politically active as a student leader in Caracas and leading protests against Mr. Chávez’s clampdown on press freedom.
His party has taken a hard-line stance against Mr. Maduro’s government, organizing street protests and rallies. Leopoldo López, the former leader of the party and one of Mr. Guaidó’s mentors, was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison after leading street protests in 2014 that challenged Mr. Maduro.
Mr. Guaidó, who declared his intention to have Mr. Maduro removed from power just days after the inauguration, was briefly detained by security forces earlier this month.
He says his intention now is to serve as the interim president of the country until new national elections can be held, a right he and the National Assembly assert is protected under Venezuela’s constitution. Mr. Guaidó has not yet said when elections might be held.
What about the country’s humanitarian crisis?
Consumer prices have skyrocketed, and the International Monetary Fund expects the inflation rate to reach 10 million percent in 2019, which would be one of the worst cases of hyperinflation in modern history.
Violence and hunger are widespread. Food shortages have reached new highs in recent months, and 80 percent of Venezuelan households don’t have sufficient access to food, according to monitoring groups. Grocery store shelves are bare. Hospitals struggle to treat severely malnourished children.
The country’s public health system has collapsed, leaving many without access to lifesaving medicine. The rates of several preventable diseases have risen.
What happens next?
It is unclear how the crisis will be resolved, with two men on opposite sides of the political spectrum proclaiming themselves president. Mr. Guaidó has cited an article of Venezuela’s Constitution that transfers power to the leader of the National Assembly in the event that the presidency becomes vacant.
President Trump issued a statement, minutes after Mr. Guaidó declared himself interim president, recognizing him as the country’s leader and calling the National Assembly the “only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people.” The United States has not ruled out the use of military force.
Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Paraguay, Peru and the Organization of American States have also recognized Mr. Guaidó as the country’s leader.
Mr. Maduro moved quickly on Wednesday to cut diplomatic ties with the United States and order American diplomats to leave the country. He accused the Trump administration of orchestrating a plot to overthrow him.
Other nations have stood by Mr. Maduro. Russia reiterated its support for his government on Wednesday, as did Bolivia.
The Venezuelan leadership may hinge on whether Mr. Maduro can maintain control over the military. The opposition is hoping that the turnout on Wednesday will persuade the military to break ranks.