It is difficult to describe the heartache and homesickness that comes with immigrating to a new country. An even more daunting task, however, is explaining what it’s like to experience the collapse of one’s country, watching it descend into dictatorship and chaos from abroad. Venezuelans at Stanford and across the world constantly grapple with these emotions and often struggle to articulate them to their non-Venezuelan friends and coworkers.
With our country making headlines recently, Venezuelans have found themselves taking on an additional, challenging task: explaining what exactly is happening in Venezuela. The ongoing crisis is notably convoluted and difficult to follow. Although U.S. media outlets continue to report on Venezuela, without context these reports are often mischaracterized and easily misconstrued. People on both sides of the U.S. political spectrum have appropriated the crisis to fit their rhetoric. This is a mistake. The situation in Venezuela is not rooted in political ideology; it is a democratic and constitutional crisis.
Throughout the past decade, Venezuela has experienced a perpetual social, economic and political collapse, and the country today is best described as a humanitarian catastrophe. Venezuela has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world; the capital of Caracas consistently ranks as the city with the highest murder rate per capita in the world. Hyperinflation stemming from gross mismanagement of monetary policy has rendered the currency worthless and the IMF has estimated that inflation will reach 10,000,000 percent in 2019. Basic staple foods and medicines are impossible to find, or are astronomically expensive when available. The Venezuelan government has also censored media coverage, prohibiting all national networks from reporting on any protests and taking over those that refuse to comply. The result has been a mass exodus of five million Venezuelans, triggering an unprecedented refugee crisis across Latin America. These are only a few of the many misfortunes that plague Venezuela; it would take several paragraphs to expand on just one of these issues.
The root of all these problems is Venezuela’s political crisis. Until recently, Venezuela could be described as “competitively authoritarian.” That is, although competitive elections were held, the ruling party’s overwhelming institutional power made significant electoral victories nearly impossible for any political opposition. This dynamic changed in December of 2015, when the coalition of opposition parties won an unprecedented two-thirds majority in Venezuela’s National Assembly. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and President Nicolás Maduro, however, still controlled every other government institution, including the elections commission.
The Opposition’s overwhelming victory in the National Assembly broke the PSUV’s hegemony over the state. The party was suddenly unable to make unilateral decisions and would be held accountable by the legislative branch of the government. Yet, in a desperate attempt to cling to power before the new assembly could be sworn in, the PSUV-majority National Assembly illegally stacked the entire Supreme Court with government loyalists — despite lacking the votes to confirm nominees. These new justices included PSUV candidates that had lost their seats in the election and individuals with no legal experience whatsoever. In the resulting conflict of powers, the president and the government-controlled Supreme Court chose to ignore the will of the democratically elected National Assembly. In March of 2017, the Court went so far as to take over the legislative powers of the National Assembly, ruling that it was “in a situation of contempt.” Amidst international condemnation for this gross violation of the Constitution, the Court was forced to reverse its decision.
In October of 2016, the government also shut down a constitutional recall referendum that would have triggered presidential elections. The ruling party would have undoubtedly lost, so they suspended all elections indefinitely due to “lack of funds.” In July of 2017, Venezuelans took to the streets for over 80 days, demanding free and fair elections and a return to full democratic rule. The government brutally repressed the protests; roughly 130 people were killed by the Armed Forces and more than 10,000 were wounded. Opposition lawmakers were also attacked and intimidated in the National Assembly building by government-supporting paramilitary groups.
On July 30, 2017, President Maduro (PSUV), determined to remain in power and aware of his party’s inability to win future elections, called for a Constituent Assembly despite not having the constitutional authority to do so. Not only is the Constituent Assembly extraconstitutional in its powers, it was also established such that the government party retained a supermajority even after losing the popular vote. The Opposition denounced the unconstitutional nature of the Constituent Assembly and refused to participate in the fraudulent election. Since then, the Constituent Assembly has dissolved the democratically elected National Assembly and replaced it in order to maintain the party’s hegemony over the state.
The elected National Assembly has refused to dissolve and continues to operate and approve laws despite being ignored by the government. This has led to a struggle for international and regional legitimacy. The majority of North and Latin American countries have chosen to recognize the National Assembly as the only legitimate and democratic branch of the Venezuelan government; this means that members of Maduro’s administration will no longer be treated as Venezuelan officials.
In May of 2018, the Venezuelan government organized fraudulent and uncompetitive presidential elections. The Supreme Court barred the Opposition from participating, preventing all viable candidates from running. Widespread vote-buying, coercion and the implementation of disproportionate representation all but guaranteed Maduro’s victory. Venezuelans massively boycotted the election. Despite government-inflated statistics claiming a 46 percent voter participation rate, only around 20 percent of the population participated (in stark contrast to historical averages of 70 percent). In addition, many of those who did participate were public employees that the government intimidated into voting. The Supreme Court re-inaugurated Maduro on Jan. 10, the last official day of his presidential term. Maduro has therefore unconstitutionally usurped the presidency.
According to the Constitution, there currently is no legitimate president of Venezuela. The Venezuelan Constitution states that in the event that the presidency is vacant, the president of the National Assembly will serve as interim president until new elections are held. This brings us to the situation we are in today. Deputy Juan Guaidó was recently chosen as president of the National Assembly, making Guaidó the official interim president of Venezuela until free and fair elections are held.
On Jan. 23, President Guaidó was sworn into office in the streets of Caracas. Millions of Venezuelans across the country and the world peacefully took to the street to support President Guaidó and demand a return to democracy. More massive mobilizations are scheduled for the upcoming weeks. Part of the goal is to show the military and potential government defectors that the Venezuelan people overwhelmingly reject Maduro’s government and demand adherence to constitutional order. In response, the government has prohibited all networks from broadcasting Guaidó’s speeches or reporting on the protests.
The United States, Canada, Brazil, Chile, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and the United Kingdom immediately recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president. In the last few days more countries have followed suit, and the European Union is set to recognize Guaidó soon if the government refuses to announce free elections.
In response to the U.S. recognition of Guaidó, Maduro attempted to sever diplomatic ties with the United States. Some Venezuelans in the diplomatic corps, however, have recognized Guaidó’s claim and refuse to adhere to Maduro’s order. President Guaidó has informed all foreign embassies that they are welcome to stay in Venezuela. As a result, the U.S. has only recalled all “non-essential” personnel from its embassy in Caracas. Maduro has now extended the deadline for U.S. diplomats to leave the country from three to 30 days and has stated that he is open to dialogue with the U.S. and the Opposition. The potential of such conversations is limited — the government has used dialogue with the Opposition in the past to weaken the momentum of anti-government protests.
Maduro’s dwindling international legitimacy has already resulted in in setbacks for his consolidation of power. Last week the Bank of England refused to release $1.3 billion in Venezuelan gold to Maduro. On Monday, the U.S., Venezuela’s largest buyer of crude oil, announced sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company (PDVSA) until free and fair elections are held. These sanctions add enormous pressure to the Maduro regime by severely limiting its ability to maintain the clientelism and corruption networks that hold up the current government-military power structures.
President Guaidó has already begun the process of appointing a new board of directives to run PDVSA (pending approval of the National Assembly). This creates unprecedented incentives for government officials and the Armed Forces to reestablish constitutional order, since their loyalty to Maduro ultimately depends on the flow of oil money. Additionally, the National Assembly has passed a clemency law that grants amnesty to officials that break with Maduro and choose to defend the Constitution instead. People across the country have handed copies of the document to members of the Armed Forces. Venezuelans abroad have even begun flooding their consulates and embassies with copies of the amnesty law.
Unfortunately, some online news sources owned by the Venezuelan government, like TeleSUR and Venezuelanalysis.com, disseminate English-language information online that portrays the situation in Venezuela as a U.S.-backed right-wing coup. This could not be further from the truth. Venezuela’s crisis is not ideological. The Opposition’s coalition is made up of a combination of ideologically diverse parties from across the political spectrum. In fact, President Guaidó’s party Popular Will was admitted to Socialist International in 2014. This is not about the U.S., the Trump administration, political parties or political leanings. It’s about the Venezuelan people taking their country back.
Despite everything, Venezuela’s future remains uncertain. The Armed Forces are the key to Venezuela’s return to democracy and path to recovery. Every day, more countries are recognizing Guaidó’s legitimacy, which will intensify the pressure on Maduro’s regime. As pressure mounts, there is no telling if or when the Armed Forces will rebel against Maduro. Either way, the international community should continue to support Venezuela’s struggle for freedom.
This crisis has affected every single Venezuelan, including those of us at Stanford. Many of our families and friends are out protesting while we watch from California. Informing people about our country and our experiences as Venezuelans is one of the only ways we can make a difference. So if you have any questions, ask a Venezuelan about his or her experiences. The following days are uncertain but crucial, they will ultimately determine whether Venezuela returns to democracy or sinks deeper into tyranny.
— Alex Trivella, co-president of the Venezuelan Student Association at Stanford
Contact Alex Trivella at atrivell ‘at’ stanford.edu.