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Venezuela: I am the president now

Image credit: Fábio Cavalcanti Ferreira (Creative Commons)

World leaders are in uproar over the state of the Venezuelan elections after the leader of legislature, Juan Guaidó, announced himself president. His declaration was made only two weeks after elected president Nicolás Maduro was sworn in for a second term.

To understand the current situation, it’s crucial to understand the history leading up to this moment.

Nicolás Maduro became president in 2013 after the death of his socialist mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

Chávez, and subsequently Maduro, created a political system which rewarded military figures for their services and elevated them to high-ranking positions of power. As a result, the military have unequivocally backed Maduro.

This corruption of military power led the United Nations to condemn Venezuela’s actions, claiming that the Venezuelan security forces carried out hundreds, if not thousands, of arbitrary killings in the name of fighting crime, with several officers violating human rights. The military and high-ranking officials are supporting Maduro because having another leader in power may expose their fraudulent activities and would see them prosecuted with jail time.

On top of this, Maduro’s reign in Venezuela has been crippled by hyperinflation – which reached 1,300,000% in the year ending November 2018 – power cuts, and severe shortages of food and medicine.

Fast forward to the most recent election, where Maduro barred candidates from challenging him, while others were jailed or fled the country for fear of imprisonment. The Venezuelan National Assembly believe they have a right to name an interim president according to Article 233 of their constitution, since they view the previous Venezuelan elections as illegitimate.

Hence, on January 23rd 2019, Guaidó as leader of the National Assembly was able to take over as acting president. Antonio Ecarri, a Venezuelan constitutional lawyer says that Article 233 can be enacted as there is a ‘usurpation of the presidential office which has left the position empty’.

When Maduro was re-elected last year, more than 50 countries deemed the election illegitimate due to the lack of transparency and strong-arming of any potential opposition. The 2018 elections were called by Maduro’s Constituent Assembly, which is an un-constitutional force, and Maduro’s swearing in took place in the Supreme Court of Justice, despite the constitution stating it must be held in the National Assembly.

Therefore, as Maduro’s oath is null and void according to the constitution, there is an absence of a true president, which allowed Guaidó to name himself interim president until new elections occur.

The key to who will claim power in Venezuela lies with the military. Guaidó has decreed amnesty for any military personnel who break away from president Maduro in a bid to plead to their humanity. Maduro believes that this is a planned coup d’état between Guaidó and US president Donald Trump, who tweeted his support for Guaidó minutes after he announced himself as interim president. Trump then escalated the matter saying that there would be a ‘significant response’ if US diplomats, Guaidó or anyone on the National Assembly is targeted with violence or intimidation.

Guaidó claims his family is being threatened by Maduro’s security forces, but Trump is yet to intervene in any meaningful way. Many democratic countries across Europe and the world pledged their support for Guaidó, while other, less democratic countries such as Russia, Syria, Turkey and China are backing Maduro.

Is this simply another Cold War ideological battle between US-led, Western democratic values and other means of governance? Or can this be seen as other nations rallying behind a cause in order to give an impoverished nation a better future?

Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, so backing either side may just be a cheap political ruse to curry favour with whoever ends up in power once the dust settles.

In the meantime, Maduro controls the military and all the real power in Venezuela, while Guaidó relies on pleas, rallying nationalist sentiment behind the legitimate use of the constitution and the pseudo-backing of international players to support his cause. Maduro won’t be usurped without a fight, and unless his military and high-ranking political officials suddenly have a change of heart, they won’t relinquish power from their grasp so easily.

Do international peace-keeping organisations such as NATO or the UN have to intervene to ensure a smooth transition to democracy? Yet, by attempting to do so, this would lead to condemnation by the countries that support Maduro. Who’s to say that Guaido will rule any better?

Let’s hope Venezuela can transition organically into a democratic, constitutionally-adhering rule with as minimal casualties as possible, in whatever form that may take.

If history is any indicator of what happens when people attempt, or achieve overthrowing a dictator, then it seems like Venezuela is in for a tumultuous ride.

George Sagris is a journalist and Honours graduate in Japanese-Chinese politics based in Adelaide.

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