What the heck is going on with Venezuela?
The ongoing crisis in Venezuela has been somewhat displaced from international news by President Trump ratcheting up conflict with Iran. Yet the U.S. is still involved — on Wednesday, Trump's Department of Homeland Security banned all commercial and cargo flights between Venezuela and the U.S. On Thursday, D.C. cops and federal officials barged into the Venezuelan embassy and arrested four protesters who had been living there for months in protest of American support for overthrowing the Venezuelan government.
So it's as good a time as any to go over just what is going on in Venezuela.
The immediate context here was a coup attempt from Juan Guaidó, the leader of Venezuela's National Assembly (akin to the speaker of the House), who proclaimed himself president in January, and was immediately recognized as such by the U.S. and given some American support. In late April, Guaidó attempted to foment an uprising to oust incumbent President Nicolás Maduro, but neither large popular protests nor expected military defections materialized, and forces loyal to Maduro put down the effort easily. Afterwards, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared: "Military action is possible. If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do."
The broader context is an ongoing economic crisis which has been getting worse for years — long before this current crisis. Venezuela has unwisely become heavily dependent on oil exports (not using them to build up a sovereign wealth fund, as Norway has done), and was hit badly by the oil price decline in 2014. Worse, many insiders close to Maduro have gamed the currency exchange system, exploiting preferential dollar exchange rates to sell dollars on the black market for a profit. The result was shortages, hunger, steadily increasing inflation, and an explosion of emigration.
Maduro became deeply unpopular, but clung to power with classic caudillo tactics. Opposition parties won control of the National Assembly in 2015, but Maduro called for a new constitution, creating a new constituent assembly in an election that was boycotted by opposition parties. The constituent assembly, stacked with Maduro loyalists, duly declared that the National Assembly no longer had any legislative powers, and banned the major opposition parties from participating in new presidential elections in 2018. (One poll found that 61 percent of Venezuelans thought the new constitutional body was "illegal and illegitimate.") Naturally, Maduro won easily — helped along by the implicit threat that people who voted against him would lose their government benefits.
It's a grim situation — but on the other hand, there is no legal basis for Guaidó to declare himself president, nor any reason to be sure he would not try the exact same tactics to hold onto power himself, given how he has aligned himself with Trump. Coming to power via a military coup backed by a hostile foreign government is arguably worse than rigging an internal election.
Moreover, the U.S. has made things far worse by meddling in Venezuelan affairs and ratcheting up sanctions. First President Obama denied visas and froze assets held in America for seven Venezuelan officials in 2015, which accomplished little aside from a small bump in Maduro's popularity. Trump has dramatically stepped up the sanctions several times, squeezing the collapsing Venezuelan economy even further. And now that even commercial and cargo flights are banned from the U.S., the noose is tighter still. An epidemic of hunger grips the country.
Meanwhile, this economic strangulation allows Maduro to claim with some justice he is only protecting Venezuela from "Yankee imperialism." The taint of American involvement — especially given the blood-drenched history of U.S. imperialism in Latin America — even has some opposition groups hesitant to accept American aid. After Guaidó said he was considering asking for a U.S. military intervention on May 5, the Venezuelan Supreme Court stripped immunity from numerous opposition lawmakers and charged them with treason (though not Guaidó himself).
However, there are a few encouraging signs. The currency control system has been abolished, and it turns out the two sides are holding talks in Norway — which has previously helped with similar negotiations, like the talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels in 2016 that ended a decades-long bloody conflict.
That sort of careful diplomacy is just what the situation calls for — a negotiated settlement that would head off a civil war, schedule new elections, end the sanctions, and allow Venezuela to start putting itself back together. It's an open question whether Norway can pull it off. But one thing is for sure — continuing violent meddling from the blundering American colossus can only make it worse. The best thing the U.S. can do is stay out of Venezuelan affairs.