Venezuela in limbo
Opposition leader Juan Guaidó met with President Trump last week. Does he still have a chance of taking power? Here's everything you need to know:
Why was Guaidó in Washington?
A year after he swept onto the international stage as the leader of an uprising that could bring democracy to Venezuela, Juan Guaidó's star has dimmed. In January 2019, Guaidó was the head of the National Assembly, the only democratically elected body remaining in the country after President Nicolás Maduro won a rigged election for a second term. The assembly declared Maduro illegitimate and Guaidó, then 35, acting president. He quickly tried to foment a general uprising against the corrupt, authoritarian Maduro regime, hoping that the army would come to his side. The U.S. and most Western governments recognized him as Venezuela's rightful leader, but Russia rushed to shore up Maduro's control, and the attempt to overthrow Maduro soon fizzled. Since then, Venezuelan politics have been in a stalemate, with Maduro still fully in charge. Last month, Maduro supporters locked Guaidó and his followers out of the parliament, and Guaidó launched a two-week world tour in hopes of regaining momentum for his opposition movement, ending his trip in Washington.
What did Trump promise?
President Trump singled out Guaidó as a guest of honor at the State of the Union address, calling him "the true and legitimate president of Venezuela" leading a "righteous struggle for freedom." Trump held up Venezuela's economic collapse as an example of the evils of socialism, a sign that he intends to use the country as a cautionary tale throughout his re-election campaign. Trump administration officials said the U.S. was preparing "crippling" new sanctions against Maduro's government, but offered no details. The Trump administration had already frozen all Venezuelan government assets, barred transactions with U.S. companies, and enacted an oil embargo. Though aimed at Maduro, those actions furthered the collapse of the Venezuelan economy. The GDP has shrunk a staggering 73 percent since Maduro took office, and hyperinflation has rendered the bolivar worthless. But Maduro still has powerful friends, notably Russia.
How is Russia helping Maduro?
Russia has supported Venezuela ever since Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, was elected in 1998 to bring old-style socialism to the country. Eager to project power in the United States' own hemisphere, Russia sold some $4 billion worth of weaponry to Venezuela from 2005 to 2008 and began making deep investments in its energy sector. Since Maduro took office in 2013, the Kremlin has propped him up financially and militarily, sending him 36 Russian Su-30MK2 fighter jets worth $10 billion. When Maduro seemed at his weakest last spring, Russia sent military advisers and the S-300 surface-to-air missile system — to demonstrate that the risks of U.S. military intervention would be high. And when Trump hit Venezuela with sanctions last summer, Russian state oil company Rosneft rescued Maduro by flouting the sanctions and became the main trader of Venezuelan oil, shipping it to buyers in China and India. Russia also made available billions of dollars in loans, and a Russian bank began offering Venezuela's new cryptocurrency, the Petro.
How is Venezuela's economy?
The Russian infusion of cash, coupled with Maduro's recent abandonment of socialist price controls, has greatly benefited Venezuela's wealthy elite. Caracas, once a scene of empty shelves, gas lines, and mass protests, now bustles with new restaurants and bars and other signs of private enterprise. With Maduro's encouragement, Venezuelans who hoarded U.S. dollars early on are now spending them on imported food, cars, and entertainment. For those who were true believers in Chávez's socialism — which did lift many out of poverty initially — the garish spectacle of extreme inequality is appalling. "This is savage capitalism that erases years of struggle," Elías Jaua, Chávez's former vice president, told The New York Times.
What about outside the capital?
Conditions are grim. In smaller towns and cities, government workers, including police, have quit after months without pay, and basic services like water and electricity are spotty or absent. Schools are run by unpaid volunteer teachers. In Parmana, for example, once a prosperous fishing and farming village, nearly all authority figures left, including the priest and the doctor, and the villagers, facing anarchy, were forced to invite Colombian guerrillas in to restore order. Most people who can afford to leave the country have already done so, an exodus of some 4 million, but the U.N. fears that another 4 million of the desperately poor could join them this year.
Guaidó doesn't have much time left to exert a claim on power. The U.S., EU, and Latin American countries recognize him as interim president because he has a constitutional role as head of the National Assembly. But parliamentary elections are due this year, and since Maduro controls the electoral apparatus and process, his party is sure to win. Latin American leaders are pushing for negotiations that would bring together Maduro and Guaidó along with their respective backers, including Russia and Cuba on one side and the U.S. and EU on the other. The goal is to allow Maduro a peaceful exit. "It's about building a golden bridge," said former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. "For Venezuela, we need a peaceful negotiated solution — with all the stakeholders."
The Venezuelan diaspora
By the end of 2019, more than 4.7 million Venezuelans — some 15 percent of the population — had left the country, fleeing hunger, poverty, and rampant crime in the largest displacement in Latin American history. Most got only as far as Colombia, Peru, or Ecuador, where they are struggling to survive. To help relieve the world's other major refugee crisis, from Syria, international donors have given some $5,000 per migrant; for Venezuela, the figure is just $100. Neighboring Colombia, where 1.6 million migrants have landed, is trying to integrate them rather than house them in camps, with some success: Venezuelan doctors have been recertified, and unskilled laborers have found work on coffee and flower ranches. But homelessness and crime have skyrocketed. "We can't control 2,200 kilometers of border," said border official Felipe Muñoz.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, try the magazine for a month here.