On Jan. 23, President of the Venezuelan National Assembly Juan Guaidó declared the government of Nicolás Maduro illegitimate and himself as interim president of the South American nation. The Organization of American States (OAS), the United States, Israel, Canada, the European Union and ten Latin American states recognized Guaidó’s claim, while Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Iran, Russia, China and others stood by Maduro. Far from being a regional crisis, Venezuela’s political turmoil is becoming the site of a global power competition.
The prospects of victory for the Venezuelan opposition are unclear at the moment. The military continues to stand by the government of Nicolás Maduro, granting him a monopoly over force in the country. However, there are reports that dissatisfaction is high in the lower and middle ranks (The Guardian, “Venezuela’s military envoy to US defects to opposition and calls for more to follow,” 01.26.2019). The gamble that the United States and its Latin American partners have taken on Guaidó could very well spiral into a long, bloody civil war and fuel the continued mass exodus of Venezuelans from their homeland.
Other than discouraging any sort of military intervention, I do not feel confident enough to endorse any particular course of action for the United States to take toward Venezuela. Nevertheless, I feel that Vassar students must remain informed about such a critical geopolitical issue. In light of this, I’ve decided to clear up four common misconceptions about Venezuela so engaged students at Vassar can be better equipped to ultimately come to their own conclusions.
Misperception #1: Venezuela’s economic crisis is due to U.S. interference.
Venezuela is in the midst of a prolonged economic crisis with soaring hyperinflation, shortages of basic goods and collapsing rates of oil production. Venezuela’s oil production rate was already dropping in 2013 after years of mismanagement and lack of reinvestment by then President Hugo Chávez. During the same period, Venezuela’s economy became increasingly concentrated on oil production, leaving it especially vulnerable to crisis when oil prices dropped precipitously in 2014 (Foreign Policy, “How Venezuela Struck It Poor,” 07.16.2018). U.S. sanctions on Venezuela only began in 2015. This indicates that Venezuela needs more than just the end of U.S. sanctions to regain economic stability. A general reorientation of the Venezuelan government’s approach to the economy is in order.
Misperception #2: The Venezuelan opposition and its allies are right wing.
Just because the Maduro government is on the hard left does not mean that the current opposition to it can be written off as right wing. Certainly, there is a strong right-wing contingent in the anti-Maduro camp—the United States, Colombia and Brazil are leading the charge against Maduro, all of them having far-right leaders. However, Guaidó’s party, Voluntad Popular (VP), is a social-democratic party and a member of the Socialist International, and left-wing figures like Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno and former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet also support Guaidó’s bid. The Venezuelan opposition and its allies are a heterogeneous grouping.
Misperception #3: Anti-Maduro does not mean pro-opposition.
Maduro is deeply unpopular with many Venezuelans because of the corruption, authoritarianism and mismanagement that has defined his tenure. A recent poll found that 63 percent of respondents would support a negotiated settlement to remove Maduro from the presidency (The Conversation, “Venezuela power struggle plunges nation into turmoil: 3 essential reads,” 01.23.2019). In addition to presiding over Venezuela’s economic catastrophe, Maduro’s government disempowered the Venezuelan National Assembly and jailed political dissidents on suspect charges. In the latest rounds of protests that have rocked Venezuela, previously pro-government working-class districts have joined the demonstrators against Maduro, indicating that opposition to Maduro is growing increasingly widespread (The Washington Post, “Maduro foe’s next step awaited as power crisis deepens,” 01.24.2019).
But just because demonstrators are against Maduro does not mean that they enthusiastically support Guaidó. The Venezuelan popular-sectors have good reason to be suspicious of an opposition movement that has not only acted undemocratically before—such as protesting the results of the fairly conducted 2006 elections—but also wants to roll back some of the social programs from which the popular sectors have benefited under Chávez and Maduro (NACLA, “Venezuela at Another Crossroads,” 01.24.2019).
Misperception #4: Military intervention would be effective and desirable.
In an interview on “Meet the Press,” conservative Hugh Hewitt claimed that a war in Venezuela could “bring us together” (Twitter, @joshtpm, 01.27.2019). This is a ludicrous and dangerous sentiment. The military still backs Maduro, and an external invasion would unify previously dissatisfied factions in a struggle against imperialism (The Guardian, “Venezuelan president says invaders ‘would not make it out alive,’” 12.17.2018). Deputizing Latin American countries to carry out a regional military effort instead would also be inadvisable. The Colombian government does not wield full control over its border with Venezuela, which is used by revolutionary armed groups like the National Liberation Army (ELN). In addition, the Brazilian regions bordering Venezuela are underdeveloped and lack the infrastructure to support a major military effort. More likely than a swift military victory, Venezuela could devolve into the site of a protracted guerrilla war in the extensive tracks of rainforest in the country.
The Venezuelan people have been living under unimaginable strain for far too long, and they deserve a better future. How the outside world can help deliver that future remains unclear, but at the very least, we can remain informed on the situation and maintain hope as it develops.