Venezuela's so-called presidents

By
Thursday, January 31, 2019

Who is Venezuela's legitimate president? The question appears to have split Latin America, and indeed the whole world, in two.

Nicolás Maduro, who was sworn in for a second term on January 10, clearly lacks legitimacy, having undermined the constitution by stripping the national assembly of its faculties, politicizing the judiciary and overseeing flawed elections, yet for all practical purposes he remains in charge and still appears to have the support of the upper echelons of the military. He also has the backing of Russia, China, Turkey and Iran, among others, along with his Latin American allies Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and El Salvador, plus the more tentative endorsement of Mexico and Uruguay, which have called a meeting for February 7 in Montevideo to try to resolve the crisis. 

Juan Guaidó, the head of the truncated assembly, declared himself acting president on January 23 on the basis that Maduro has usurped the constitution (although interestingly, the article of the constitution that Guaidó cites – article 233 – to support his claim to the presidency actually states that if a sitting head of state abandons the post for whatever reason or is removed by the national assembly, it is the vice president – in this case Delcy Rodríguez, a Maduro ally – who should take over. The head of the national assembly would only act as interim president if the president-elect is barred from assuming office. In either case, new elections must be called within 30 days, unless there is less than two years to go to scheduled elections).

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Guaidó has the support of some 20 countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada and most of the Group of Lima nations in South America, along with the European parliament. The European Union, however, has taken a more cautious approach, calling for fresh elections, which is exactly what Guaidó says he wants to do rather than form some sort of parallel government.

In practice, however, support for Guaidó is largely symbolic as he has no real power or authority, despite naming certain "ambassadors" – most of those countries recognizing him as president still maintain diplomatic relation with the Caracas government – and courting Washington's economic might, including sanctions against Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, which is a crucial lifeline for the Maduro regime. He also seems to have united a weak and fragmented opposition, while his detractors claim what he is doing is staging a coup with US backing, which is precisely what many of his admirers would like to see.

The truth is, Venezuela is a mess. Economically it's been in dire straits for the last few years – and using the excuse of low oil prices is something of a red herring as it just doesn't stand up to scrutiny. While it's true that crude prices fell drastically in 2014 and 2015 from all-time highs, they have since picked up and are hovering well above historic lows. In any case, countries that are dependent on commodities have to learn to deal with price fluctuations.

One thing is clear, however; the solution to Venezuela's plight must, ultimately, be an internal matter, as coups and foreign intervention, especially military intervention, rarely do anything but make matters worse.