Venezuela Political Crisis

In News: A woman was shot dead and dozens injured in the Venezuelan capital Caracas, in clashes between opposition supporters and pro-government forces. Tear gas and water cannon were fired by the military amid rival demonstrations.

A slow-simmering political crisis that has gripped Venezuela for months appeared to be coming to a head this week as opposition politicians issued a direct challenge to the authority of President Nicolás Maduro.

The leader of the opposition, Juan Guaidó, called for a military and popular uprising to oust Mr. Maduro from office, triggering a day of protest that turned violent but later fizzled. Mr. Maduro characterized the action as unconstitutional, while Mr. Guaidó maintained it was a necessary move to restore legitimacy to the presidency.

Why is the presidency disputed?

  • Nicolás Maduro was first elected in April 2013 after the death of his socialist mentor and predecessor in office, Hugo Chávez. At the time, he won by a thin margin of 1.6 percentage points.
  • During his first term in office, the economy went into freefall and many Venezuelans blame him and his socialist government for the country’s decline.
  • Mr Maduro was re-elected to a second six-year term in highly controversial elections in May 2018, which most opposition parties boycotted.
  • Many opposition candidates had been barred from running while others had been jailed or had fled the country for fear of being imprisoned and the opposition parties argued that the poll would be neither free nor fair.
  • Mr Maduro’s re-election was not recognised by Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Why is it all coming to a head now?

  • After being re-elected, Mr Maduro announced he would serve out his remaining first term and only then be sworn in for a second term on 10 January.
  • It was following his swearing-in ceremony that the opposition to his government was given a fresh boost. The National Assembly argues that because the election was not fair, Mr Maduro is a “usurper” and the presidency is vacant.
  • This is a line that is being pushed in particular by the new president of the National Assembly, 35-year-old Juan Guaidó.

Who is Juan Guaidó?

  • Citing articles 233 and 333 of Venezuela’s constitution, the legislature says that in such cases, the head of the National Assembly takes over as acting president.
  • That is why Mr Guaidó declared himself acting president on 23 January. Since then, he has been organising mass protests and calling on the military to switch allegiance.

What has the reaction been?

  • More than 50 countries have recognised Mr Guaidó as the legitimate president, among them the US and many nations in Latin America.
  • But Russia and China among others have stood by President Maduro.
  • Within Venezuela, those opposed to the government celebrated Mr Guaidó’s move, while government officials said they would defend the president from “imperialist threats”.
  • While Mr Guaidó counts with the support of many international leaders, he does not have much power in practical terms.
  • He is the president of the National Assembly, but this legislative body was largely rendered powerless by the creation of the National Constituent Assembly in 2017, which is exclusively made up of government loyalists.

How did Venezuela get this bad?

Some of the problems go back a long time. However, it is President Maduro and his predecessor, the late President Hugo Chávez, who find themselves the target of much of the current anger.

Their socialist governments have been in power since 1999, taking over the country at a time when Venezuela had huge inequality. But the socialist polices brought in which aimed to help the poor backfired. Take price controls, for example. They were introduced by President Chávez to make basic goods more affordable to the poor by capping the price of flour, cooking oil and toiletries. But this meant that the few Venezuelan businesses producing these items no longer found it profitable to make them.

Critics also blame the foreign currency controls brought in by President Chávez in 2003 for a flourishing black market in dollars. Since then, Venezuelans wanting to exchange bolivars for dollars have had to apply to a government-run currency agency. Only those deemed to have valid reasons to buy dollars, for example to import goods, have been allowed to change their bolivars at a fixed rate set by the government.

With many Venezuelans unable to freely buy dollars, they turned to the black market.

What are the biggest challenges today?

Hyperinflation

  • The annual inflation rate reached 1,300,000% in the 12 months to November 2018, according to a study by the opposition-controlled National Assembly. By the end of 2018, prices were doubling every 19 days on average. This has left many Venezuelans struggling to afford basic items such as food and toiletries.
  • The price of a cup of coffee in the capital Caracas doubled to 400 bolivars ($0.62; £0.50) in the space of just a week last December, according to Bloomberg.
  • The International Monetary Fund predicts that Venezuela’s inflation rate will reach 10 million percent in 2019, becoming one of the worst cases of hyperinflation in modern history.  Experts say government mismanagement and corruption is the source of the country’s economic woes; Mr. Maduro blames damaging United States sanctions.

Oil reserves leading to collapse

  • Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, and the country’s economy is largely tied to its oil wealth.
  • This oil wealth once made the nation one of the richest in Latin America and helped stabilize its democracy although the riches were not equally shared. But the past few years have seen the economy spiral toward collapse.

Humanitarian crisis

In the once prosperous nation, people now find themselves unable to provide for their most basic needs. Hunger is widespread and children are dying of malnutrition. The country’s public health care system has collapsed and prolonged electricity outages are common.

The crisis has also triggered a vast regional migration as Venezuelans flee the country’s dire conditions, straining the resources of neighboring nations. Some 3.4 million people have left Venezuela since 2014, according to the United Nation’s immigration authority, the majority settling in Colombia, Peru, Chile and Ecuador. And as the political stalemate continues, little has been done to rectify the situation for everyday Venezuelans.

Know more about the country

  • Located on the northern coast of South America, consisting of a continental landmass and a large number of small islands and islets in the Caribbean Sea.
  • Capital: Caracas
  • The continental territory is bordered on the north by the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, on the west by Colombia, Brazil on the south, Trinidad and Tobago to the north-east and on the east by Guyana.
  • Has habitats ranging from the Andes Mountains in the west to the Amazon basin rain-forest in the south via extensive llanos plains, the Caribbean coast and the Orinoco River Delta in the east.
  • Has the world’s largest known oil reserves and has been one of the world’s leading exporters of oil.
  • The colors of the Venezuelan flag are yellow, blue, and red: the yellow stands for land wealth, the blue for the sea that separates Venezuela from Spain, and the red for the blood shed by the heroes of independence.
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