Venezuela Is Starving and Still Maduro Clings to Power

The opposition has yet to convince the military top brass to switch sides.

Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro delivers a speech
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro delivers a speech (Palacio de Miraflores/Miguel Angulo)

Nicolás Maduro is still president of Venezuela. That may not sound like news, but in the six years he has been in power, he has so poorly managed the economy, with increasingly authoritarian measures, that GDP has shrunk 60 percent, inflation has reached an astronomical 10 million percent, once forgotten diseases have returned, 4.5 million Venezuelans have fled the country and 90 percent of the remaining population lives in poverty. It’s the worst economic collapse outside of a civil war.

Little wonder mass protests have been a recurrent aspect of Maduro’s administration, but so far all attempts to remove him have failed.

Maduro only won reelection in 2018 after arresting opposition presidential candidates, sidelining the opposition-controlled legislature and most likely rigging the vote.

In January, Juan Guaidó, a social democrat and president of the National Assembly, took the extraordinary step of invoking Article 233 of the Constitution to declare himself interim president and call for early elections.

What has happened since?

With the recognition of 54 countries, many thought this daring move would bring about the end of twenty years of Bolivarian Socialism. But Maduro’s opponents are still waiting.

While Guaidó can count on widespread domestic dissent and pressure from broad sections of the international community, he knows the Venezuelan military top brass holds the keys to power. They are responsible for the top export industries, administering food imports and managing civil unrest.

In contrast to the vast majority of their fellow countrymen, they have received regular wage increases and are in a position to profiteer from invaluable — but much diminished — oil revenues (Venezuela exports 750,000 barrels per day, down from 3.4 million in 1999) as well as the distribution of scarce food resources. Some are also involved in trafficking drugs, fuel and people.

In April, Guaidó led a botched coup attempt when his calls for a military uprising went largely unheeded.

International pressure

Internally, hope has faded with the anti-Maduro coalition fraying at the edges. Internationally, Maduro is being sustained by Chinese and Russian loans and economic interests.

Repeated attempts at mediation, by the Papacy, Mexico, Uruguay and most recently Norway and Barbados, have accomplished nothing.

The Organization of American States (OAS) has called for stronger sanctions, not just for government officials that are already in place, but for their allies who facilitate the removal of public funds to foreign accounts.

Other countries in Latin America have reason to act. Venezuelans continue to pour into Brazil, Colombia and Peru seeking asylum. Although many are skilled workers, Venezuela is also exporting disease and poverty, placing growing demands on the public services of its neighbors.

Guaidó’s challenge

Some believe that for a transition to take place, Maduro’s allies need to be wooed. Guaidó is holding exploratory talks with China and Russia and has previously offered military officials amnesty, but to no avail. Others, like OAS secretary general Luis Almagro, argue Maduro and his henchmen must be held to account for what they’ve done.

Guaidó’s challenge is to keep Maduro’s feet to the fire by retaining the confidence of the international community and convincing Maduro’s allies that they have a future in Venezuela without him.

A first necessary step is a defensive one: protecting the integrity of the National Assembly. Guaidó is expected to retain his role as president of the legislature.

A second would be to ensure that any elections that take place are scrutinized by international observers and presided over by an independent electoral commission.

If Guaidó and what remains a broad coalition start to fragment, nothing may change. The oppositon must remain united if there is any hope of returning to constitutional and democratic order.