Choking the enemy by choking your own: increasing pressure in the Venezuelan presidential crisis

With neither Maduro nor Guaidó willing to break the political deadlock, Amelia Goonerage covers the humanitarian costs of ongoing sanctions on Venezuela.

As Juan Guaidó returned to Venezuela earlier this month, he was met with a combination of cheers and boos, with jostling crowds pulling at his clothing as he was escorted through the airport. The scene comes at the end of Guaidó’s international trip, in defiance of the travel ban imposed on the opposition leader by the Maduro government. During his trip, Guaidó sought support for harsher sanctions on Venezuela from various national leaders, including Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson, and Donald Trump. 

Guaidó is currently recognised by 60 countries as the legitimate head of state of Venezuela, including several Latin American states such as Brazil and Colombia. Accordingly, sanctions on Venezuela and its supporters have been extensive, with the US recently imposing sanctions on Russian oil subsidiary Rosneft in order to suffocate the Maduro government. Nonetheless, not all have abandoned Maduro: China, through its ongoing financial and military support for Maduro, emphasises “the principle of non-interference and objects to external intervention into Venezuela’s internal affairs”. 

Although an immediate military intervention seems unlikely, Trump has expressed the possibility of getting involved to remove Maduro from power in the past. Meanwhile, in early February, the Venezuelan government combined the civilian militia with the armed forces in anticipation of possible American aggression. Following US accusations that Venezuela is linked to terrorist groups such as the Hezbollah, some have expressed concern that international rivalries and political instability may lead to Venezuela becoming “South America’s Afghanistan”. 

The Presidential Crisis: Deadlock upon Deadlock 

The presidential crisis stems from early 2019: Following the 2018 presidential election, 35-year-old Guaidó rose to prominence through US support and the guidance of key opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez. In an act that has drawn widespread public support as well as the ire of the Maduro regime, Guaidó declared the election illegitimate and installed himself as the interim president of Venezuela. Although Maduro remains in office, there have been several flareups, including the election for speaker of the National Assembly. On January 5, Guaidó and his supporters were initially prevented from entering the legislature by security forces, leading to attempts to scale the fence around the building, and ultimately elected by 100 lawmakers in the offices of the newspaper, El Nacional. The positions of both the president and the speaker are now in dispute. Although Guaidó was allowed to enter Venezuela freely on February 11, Maduro implied that his arrest was imminent, stating that “it will come”. 

Whilst the outcome of the crisis will prove crucial for the immediate future of Venezuela, for a country long mired in political and economic turmoil, the presidential stand-off is merely the tip of the iceberg. 

The presidential standoff has emerged at the zenith of one of the most serious humanitarian crises facing Latin America in recent history. Whilst the outcome of the crisis will prove crucial for the immediate future of Venezuela, for a country long mired in political and economic turmoil, the presidential stand-off is merely the tip of the iceberg.    

A Humanitarian Disaster 

Since 2014, Venezuela’s economy has been in a tailspin: Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, and brain drain have left Venezuelans struggling to pick up the pieces. The US and others imposing sanctions, maintain that these measures target wealthy individuals. They blame economic mismanagement and the collapse of oil prices under Chavez and Maduro for economic deterioration. However, the Maduro government alleges that the sanctions are intended to choke the Venezuelan economy, a view echoed by economist Jeffrey Sachs, who attributed up to 40,000 deaths to the sanctions in a 2017 report. 

Due to the crisis, 90% of Venezuela’s population was estimated to be below the poverty line in 2017, and millions have chosen to flee the dire conditions. Since 2014, the number of Venezuelans seeking refugee status worldwide has exploded, an increase of 8,000 per cent according to the UNHCR. Pressure from the large numbers of migrants is felt across the continent, including in Colombia, a state with which Venezuela has already extremely strained relations. Colombia’s finance minister Alberto Carrasquilla estimates that the costs of supporting Venezuelan migrants and refugees amounts to approximately 0.4 to 0.8 per cent of GDP, translating to strained public services in a country that is still grappling with the aftereffects of armed conflict. 

Public services, schools and hospitals have buckled. Considering that in its early stages, mass migration is undertaken primarily by those who can afford it (i.e. professionals, doctors and teachers seeking better living conditions), severely underfunded services are put under even more pressure by the professional exodus. Although some normalcy has been established in the capital Caracas, rural areas have long suffered low wages, lack of infrastructure and minimal resources, with schoolchildren often found sitting on the floor without chairs or desks. It seems that Venezuelans cannot take much more uncertainty. Both within Venezuela and across the continent, what happens next is vital. 

Will Maduro Crack? 

Although Guaidó may enjoy significant international support and Maduro has been repeatedly criticised for his government’s record on political freedoms and human rights, Maduro’s regime seems unlikely to come undone any time soon. Both sides have a raft of supporters and a fragile stability has been maintained in the capital, which serves as the central battleground. 

Part of this so-called stability, enjoyed mostly by the wealthy elite in Caracas, comes as a result of partial economic liberalization and dollarization, measures taken to mitigate the worst effects of the economic turmoil and allow businesses to operate once again. These free-market reforms have undermined some of Maduro’s rhetoric, particularly as the benefits have only been enjoyed by those with access to dollars, a privilege unavailable to approximately half the population. His opponent, on the other hand, has promised large amounts of humanitarian aid, the re-establishment services and a dramatic reduction in poverty should he gain control, according to his plan to restructure the economy. Until then, Guaidó has called for increasing international pressure on Maduro through sanctions. At this juncture, it seems to be a waiting game, with pressure gradually mounting on both sides: who will blink first? 

Sanctions on Venezuela

The efficacy of sanctions has been called into question. Considering the humanitarian cost of economic collapse, the continued vitality of the wealthy in Caracas and the resilience of the Maduro regime, it seems that sanctions have significantly exacerbated inequality, with Maduro evading their intended consequences. Some have argued that sanctions have further entrenched authoritarianism in Venezuela, “justifying the authoritarian position that, for now, there is no time for debate, discussion, and popular participation.” The elite of Venezuela, a key repository of support in any authoritarian regime, have evidently not experienced the same squeeze that the poor have. 

Whatever the outcome, what is certain is that the crisis is bringing Venezuela to its knees. Luis Vicente León, director of a polling and market research firm in Caracas, described the prospective outcome of this political duel to the death to the Financial Times as a “catastrophic deadlock where neither side can defeat the other but their conflict can destroy the country.” Until the crisis is resolved, the humanitarian cost will only increase. Both figures might be trying to smoke each other out, but it is regular Venezuelans who are being suffocated.