Just the Facts on Venezuela
2/5/2019 Joshua Collins
A very brief explainer
Venezuelan riot police during the 2017 protests in Venezuela
Medellin, Colombia- I’ve been writing about and reporting from the border in Venezuela for a while. And for much of that time it felt like few people cared. But with the latest round of rebellion, Venezuela finds itself in the international headlines. And as I engage with people back home in the States about what is going on, I see a lot of misinformation emanating from various sources, including from politicians whom I respect and should know better.
I credit a lot of it to a reflexive aversion to anything Trump, as well as a very rational fatigue and distrust of American adventures abroad. So, let’s take a step back and go over what is currently happening in Venezuela, complete with a veritable mountain of hyperlinks.
A (very) brief history of what led to the current crisis.
According to the latest UN report, 3.5 million people (a bit less than 20% of the population) have fled Venezuela in the last two years, making it the biggest mass-migration in South American history. They have fled due to a massively devalued currency and a completely failed economy in which the monthly minimum wage comes out to just under $7 USD.
Insecurity is rampant, and Venezuela is on course to become one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Furthermore, Venezuelans live under a government that assassinates and jails political dissidents, heavily censors its citizens and media organizations, is rampant with corruption and has a history of dissolving Democratic Institutions such as the National Assembly as well as stacking the courts with Maduro supporters, all the way up to the Supreme Court, in what some have called a “judicial coup.”
The government is best described as a kleptocracy, with Maduro using dwindling oil profits to buy the loyalty of an ever-increasingly inefficient Military, whom he has put in charge of huge swaths of the government, including the national oil company PDVSA.
The Military and Maduro’s cronies essentially use what is left of Venezuelan Oil production (currently less than half of what it was 15 years ago) to maintain grip on a country that teeters closer to complete collapse every day.
Mass protests in 2014 and 2017 were put down extremely violently by Maduro’s government, particularly by his paramilitary forces or “Colectivos” whom have been known to use a system of informants to intimidate the general populace through targeted executions of opposition members as well as ordinary citizens who have simply attended protests or opposition rallies.
In 2017, after the bloody debacle that was the last round of protests the Trump administration put in place much stricter sanctions that made it much harder for the Venezuelan government to obtain credit, and worsened the economic situation there. But it must be noted that the Venezuelan economy had already been in a death spiral for four years, and thus this policy, although an inhumane response, did not create the economic crisis in Venezuela, contrary to Maduro’s desperate attempts to deflect responsibility. But it did worsen the conditions on the ground.
On January 23rd a previously unknown politician named Juan Guiado, president of the National Assembly (sort of like their version of Congress or Parliament), declared himself interim president. The National Assembly was stripped of all power by Maduro in 2017, but continues to meet regardless.
In what was clearly a pre-orchestrated move, Guiado was immediately recognized by the United States and a host of other nations followed suit. Since then most of South and Central America as well as virtually all of Europe have joined the cause celebre and stated public support for Guiado in one form or another.
Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela
Nicolas Maduro meanwhile can count the support of Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Russia, Turkey, Iran and somewhat less enthusiastically, China (whom is lending support in UN deliberation but has stayed mostly ambivalent about the idea of regime change).
Meanwhile, thousands have taken to the streets in Venezuela in sporadic demonstrations since the announcement.
Which brings us to the present.
Maduro retains control of the military as well his special police and paramilitary forces. And although there have been a few high-level defections, as long as he has all the guns it is doubtful he is going anywhere.
So Venezuela finds itself with two presidents currently. One, Nicolas Maduro, retains the support of the military though finds himself under more pressure by the day. The other, Juan Guiado, holds a mostly symbolic position with considerable public backing within Venezuela, and the support of most of the international community.
Critics charge that the declaration of Guiado, and the increasingly belligerent rhetoric of the utterly terrifying National Security advisor John Bolton, whom has never met a regime-change he didn't like, amounts to an “American coup”. And it is easy to doubt that the white house intentions are as pure as “spreading democracy”. They have been quite content to ignore the humanitarian abuses of allies that they find convenient, such as Saudi Arabia.
But that doesn’t mean that the government of Nicolas Maduro is legitimate. It can be equally true that:
1. The administration response is troubling and hypocritical. Especially considering our bloody and heavy-handed history in Latin America.
And also that:
2. Nicolas Maduro leads an incredibly violent dictatorship and there is little left of the Democratic institutions that swept Chavez, an inarguably more adept leader, into power almost 20 years ago.
This is something a lot of media sources and politicians seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge in the discussion taking place around the world. They often reflexively take a side with an alarming blindness to the very real facts on the ground. It is human. We have a tendency to simplify situations into camps of “good guys” and “bad guys”. But as we have written extensively before, it is rarely that simple. And especially in Venezuela, the people deserve more consideration than knee-jerk reactions.