24 Jan 2019

Political crisis in Venezuela: What's going on

1:43 pm on 24 January 2019

Analysis - Venezuela is lurching dangerously into internal conflict and the US is backing opposition leader Juan Guaidó's claim to interim presidency of the troubled nation.

Leader of the National Assembly Juan Guaido has declared himself interim president of Venezuela, with the support of the United States.

Leader of the National Assembly Juan Guaido has declared himself interim president of Venezuela, with the support of the United States. Photo: Photo / AFP

US economic sanctions and political antagonism targeting oil-rich Venezuela dates back two decades, since the late socialist leader Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1999, who promised a series of social reforms and nationalisation of industries.

He carried out his pledges, nationalising major swaths of the OPEC nation's economy as part of a radical social agenda, using oil money to pay for popularist reforms like increasing the minimum wages of poor workers.

Not everyone was impressed.

Mr Chávez was detained in a brief military coup in 2002, but was reinstated by military loyalists after mass street protests.

In 2007, Chavez's government took a majority stake in four oil projects in the vast Orinoco heavy crude belt, worth an estimated US$30 billion.

Exxon Mobil Corp and ConocoPhillips left the country as a result and filed arbitration claims. Hundreds of other private corporates were affected by Chavez policies.

US and allied nations in Latin America have been ratcheting up pressure on Venezuela in an effort to remove Chavez's successor, President Nicolás Maduro, who continued similar policies, labelling him a dictator.

Mr Maduro convened a national vote in July 2017 to elect a group to redraft the constitution to bring about a 'constituent assembly' - a move that his opponents said was an attempt to override the existing parliament, setting in place a Cuban-style Congress that would serve to rubber-stamp the executive's orders.

Demonstrations against Mr Maduro increased, many marked by violence and clashes with the security forces. Opposition figures associated with the protests have been routinely arrested.

Yesterday's rally in Caracas seeking Mr Manduro's removal, which followed dozens of violent protests and looting overnight that left four people dead, was just the latest of dozens of opposition rallies in recent years.

In November last year, US National Security Advisor John Bolton accused Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua of being part of a "troika of tyranny."

In September, the New York Times reported the Trump administration conducted secret meetings with rebellious military officers in Venezuela to discuss overthrowing Mr Maduro.

In August, Mr Maduro survived an assassination attempt when he was attacked by a drone, which exploded. He accused the US and Colombia of being involved in the plot.

Mr Maduro was sworn in last week to a second six-year term following his victory in last May's election, which was boycotted by the opposition after accusations it would be rigged.

Days before Mr Maduro was sworn in, opposition figure Juan Guaidó became head of the country's National Assembly, which soon voted to declare Mr Maduro a "usurper" of the country's constitution in an effort to remove him from office.

The Assembly has been effectively stripped of its powers since Mr Maduro's ruling Socialist Party lost control of it in 2016.

Mr Guaidó has openly called for the military to lead a coup against the Maduro government in recent days.

Security forces clash with opposition demonstrators.

Security forces clash with opposition demonstrators. Photo: Photo / AFP

The US and its neo-liberal allies in Latin American have backed Mr Guaidó's claim to be interim president.

The Lima Group, made up of Latin American countries, including Brazil and Colombia, also recently voted to not recognise the legitimacy of Maduro's presidency. Mexico was the sole dissenter.

The US, which has maintained a series of sanctions against the country, has accused the socialist government of economic mismanagement, corruption and human rights abuses.

Venezuela is facing a staggering economic crisis, caused in part by falling oil prices in a country over-reliant on oil proceeds - which accounts for 95 percent of its export earnings.

The Maduro government also blames an "economic war" waged by the US using official and unofficial sanctions.

In May last year President Trump signed an executive order imposing a third round of sanctions, which would bar United States companies or citizens from buying debt or accounts receivable from the Venezuelan government, including Petróleos de Venezuela, the government-owned oil company, parent of Citgo Petroleum Corporation.

The aim, it said, was to tackle government corruption.

The sanctions fell short of direct penalties on the oil sector, which the Trump administration has said would harm the Venezuelan people and American companies.

The US is now weighing full economic sanctions against the country's oil sector, after President Trump backed Juan Guaidó as the nation's interim president.

The International Monetary Fund has reported inflation to be over 1 million percent in the last year, the highest rate in the world.

There are widespread reports of food and medicine shortages. Crime rates have rocketed.

The United Nations estimates three million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015, resulting in what it has described as an "unprecedented migration crisis" in Latin America.

Mr Maduro has reached out to the United Nations to help establish a peace dialogue in Venezuela. The response of the United Nations to Mr Maduro's request may have a significant bearing on what now transpires over the coming days and weeks.

However, as contemporary Latin American history demonstrates, unilateral actions by the United States may prove to be the final arbitrator in deciding the fate of Mr Maduro and his beleaguered socialist government.

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