Misreadings and Misgivings

Understanding the Venezuelan presidential crisis

by Oriana Van Praag

Illustration by Katya Lebowe-Stoll

published February 8, 2019

It was a sight to behold. On January 23, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to denounce the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro and demand a return to democracy. The streets of Caracas were filled with protesters chanting and waving the national flag, in an outpouring of hope that weeks before had seemed impossible.

The capital had become a site of mourning, fear, and desperation. Once teeming markets lay empty, and the little food that could be found seemed to increase in price by the minute. The country’s inflation rate surpassed 1.3 million percent last year, according to figures by the International Monetary Fund, and a household survey from 2017 found that 87 percent of the population lived in poverty and over 61 percent lived in extreme poverty. More people leave their homes every day to seek refuge in neighboring countries, and the ones who stay behind are generally afraid to go out due to rampant crime. But on that bright January morning, Venezuelans raised their hands to the sky as if to take an oath. They were swearing in Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly, as interim president.

This was a direct challenge to the Maduro regime, which had grown more authoritative as the popularity of the United Socialist Party decreased due to mounting social and economic crisis. The executive stacked the courts with loyalists and annulled the powers of the National Assembly, which the opposition had gained control over in 2015. Two years later, it held sham elections to a supra-constitutional body that assumed legislative authority. Despite the growing concentration of power in the executive, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) insisted on the electoral route to take back democratic spaces. That had been the preferred strategy of the coalition since its inception in 2008, and it allowed parties ranging from the Left to the Center-Right to come together at election time to oppose the ruling party.

In 2017, the MUD tried organizing a recall referendum and participating in gubernatorial elections, but the former was quickly halted by the regime and the latter were mired in fraud. The government made voting difficult for opposition supporters and coerced beneficiaries of social programs into voting in its favor, all the while forbidding independent oversight. It became clear that participating in elections without ensuring fairness and transparency would only serve to legitimate the regime. Several negotiation processes were attempted, but the government was unwilling to make substantial concessions. With both the institutional and the electoral route blocked, it was difficult to see how the opposition could move forward. By the start of 2018, many of its leaders were imprisoned or in exile, and it looked like the coalition was about to come apart.

When the government called presidential elections that May, the main parties in the opposition did not participate, as electoral conditions had not changed since the gubernatorial race. Still, Maduro announced that he had been reelected with almost 70 percent of the votes and a 46 percent participation rate. “So much they have underestimated me,” he said to a crowd of supporters, “and here we are again, victorious!” Only in the eyes of a few: the elections were widely perceived as a sham in Venezuela, with the United States, the European Union, and the Latin American countries gathered under the Lima Group refusing to recognize their results. Therefore, few cheered during the inauguration of his second presidential term this January, in a context where all institutional and electoral pathways were blocked. However, the event was also an opportunity because Maduro was not recognized as the country’s legitimate leader by a large portion of the international community; the stage was set for a challenger to rise.




Juan Guaidó, a young deputy who began his career as a student leader, was elected president of the National Assembly that month as part of a power-sharing agreement between the main opposition parties. Unlike most leaders in the coalition, he was not resented for the failures of previous years or under government persecution. His rise to the national stage reinvigorated opposition supporters: “People had lost faith,” a protester named María Amelia told The New York Times, “then a leader emerged, and this new leader has become our biggest hope.” Guaidó asked to be sworn in as interim president based on Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which establishes that the head of the National Assembly should assume power and hold new elections if the president-elect is determined to be absent. While winning through illegitimate elections is not one of the absences mentioned in the article, there are no constitutional provisions determining what to do in such a case, which means the National Assembly is allowed to make a liberal interpretation of the text. That being the only remaining democratic institution in the country, the leadership of Juan Guaidó has both legal and popular legitimacy. “Let’s swear as brothers that we won’t rest until we gain freedom,” he told protesters on January 23, “we know that this is not just about one person.”

Yet international news outlets have insisted on portraying Guaidó as a political nobody who “declared himself” president. This portrayal places undue emphasis on his figure, neglecting that political power in the opposition is widely distributed, and it denies agency to the millions of Venezuelans who support him. In some cases, these failures are part of a wider misunderstanding by international observers who see the efforts toward democratic transition in the country as a coup d’état. Progressive outlets like Democracy Now! have reported that a coup is underway in Venezuela, and more mainstream publications like The New York Times have also expressed concern. They are worried about the role that the Venezuelan military and foreign governments, particularly the United States, would play in the process of governmental change. Both parties’ objectives seem antithetical to a peaceful and democratic transition, and they evoke a shameful past of international intervention and military dictatorship in Latin America. While there are grounds to be concerned, the fears of international observers tend to be exaggerated or misplaced, given their basis on simplified and frequently naïve understandings of the Venezuelan political context.

While it would be ideal for democratic transition to be carried out solely by civilians, the power of the military is inescapable. The armed forces have historically been the arbiters of political change in the country, and the current regime depends on them to remain in power. Maduro has secured the support of the military by offering generals top positions in his government and providing them with ample opportunities to engage in corruption. The upper ranks of the armed forces have not felt the humanitarian crisis that consumes most Venezuelans: they continue to reap the benefits of oil extraction, mineral exploitation, and the country’s swelling drug trade. In addition to giving them access to these state resources, the regime has used political repression to ensure their loyalty. In a process that began under Chávez and has grown severe in recent years, the armed forces have been purged of dissident officials, who have been either jailed or forced into exile.

However, coverage of the events in left-leaning news outlets seems to suggest that it is the opposition who relies on the military for support. They cite desperate protesters who want the army to topple Maduro or call on a strong government to restore law and order. To present these voices as representative of opposition supporters as a whole is inaccurate, and to conflate them with the political strategy of their leaders is misleading. Unlike top officials in the government, all opposition politicians are civilians. People in the opposition are generally apprehensive of the military because of its alliance with the government, and many of them have suffered at its hands: civil society organizations calculate that 200 people were killed in the protests of 2014 and 2017 and more than 20,000 were injured. In the past weeks alone, over 800 people have been jailed and 43 killed. Hence, the vast majority of people who desire change would not like to see a military government like the ones of last century, and they would generally prefer the armed forces to play a minor role in the transition.

However, Venezuelans do not have the intellectual privilege to ignore the capacity for violence that lies within the military. Maduro cannot be ousted and new presidential elections cannot be held unless the men in uniform allow it—so their allegiance has to be procured somehow. Guaidó acknowledges this: on January 27, he addressed soldiers asking them “not to shoot against the Venezuelan people” who have “constitutionally taken to the streets to defend your family, your people, your job, and your sustenance.” The National Assembly subsequently passed a Law of Amnesty and Constitutional Guarantees targeted at military and government officials who support the transition to democracy. The middle and lower ranks may be receptive to the offer, as they are also facing dire circumstances, but their support will not result in governmental change unless there is a widespread insurrection or prominent members switch sides. Some have already recognized Guaidó as president, including the government’s defense attaché in the United States and an Air Force general, but it remains to be seen whether others will follow their lead.

So, while the armed forces have an important role to play in the transition, they are not presently its mastermind or executioner. That does not mean military involvement is free of risk: the armed forces will most likely try to retain influence over the state and maintain access to its resources, and they may even attempt to put one of their own in power. This means the opposition will have to tread carefully while seeking their support. However, its leadership has consistently demonstrated that it desires a peaceful transition, led by civilians.




Many international observers worry that this possibility would be hindered by foreign intervention. They were suspicious when Guaidó was recognized as interim president by the majority of Latin American countries, the European Union, and the United States. To them, that support indicates that the movement for government change responds to the economic and political interests of foreign countries, and some have gone as far as to say their administrations have orchestrated it. These accounts, like those concerned with the participation of the military, tend to ignore the political agency and popular legitimacy of the opposition and fail to recognize that international pressure has an important role to play in the transition to democracy.

Encouraging foreign governments to pressure Maduro is one of the few ways the opposition can procure the political leverage needed for negotiations. The few state institutions it still controls have little to no effective power, and its leaders command limited economic means. However, they have something the regime does not: international legitimacy. Up until now, that recognition has provided little more than symbolic standing and calls for the government to respect human rights and democracy, which have not been conducive to regime change. The stronger stance assumed by foreign governments in Europe and the Americas this past month should not be read as a violation of Venezuelan sovereignty. Instead, it should be understood as a manifestation of the responsibility the international community bears toward people whose rights are being violated by an oppressive regime. It is foreign governments who are responding to the demands of Venezuelans and their representatives, and not vice versa.

Yet many observers are concerned that the governments pressuring Maduro are responsible for economically and socially conservative reforms in their own countries, and that some are themselves authoritarian. The most powerful states in the Americas have shifted towards the right in recent years, with Trump coming to power in the United States, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Piñera and Macri in Chile and Argentina, respectively. Whether or not the opposition agrees with the domestic policies of these governments, however, it finds itself in an international context where it must make strategic alliances.

The most influential of those alliances has been with the United States. This is the main qualm raised by observers who are sympathetic to the plight of Venezuelans but apprehensive of American intervention abroad. They are right to be suspicious: Washington is responsible for the installation of military dictatorships in Latin America that have resulted in ineffable suffering, such as those that deposed João Goulart in Brazil and Salvador Allende in Chile. And the Trump administration’s discourse around Venezuela, while clothed in democratic language, is indicative of a wider project to restore American dominance in the region. In a speech before the UN General Assembly last September, Trump drew on the Venezuelan crisis to argue that “virtually everywhere socialism or communism has been tried, it has produced suffering, corruption, and decay” and call on “all nations of the world [to] resist socialism.”  The promotion of American supremacy through Cold War rhetoric was even clearer in the statements of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before the UN Security Council this January. He urged member states to “pick a side ... either you stand with the forces of freedom or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem.”

The United States has broken diplomatic relations with the regime and recognized Guaidó as its legitimate interlocutor in the country. On January 28, the administration imposed oil sanctions prohibiting most American businesses from engaging in transactions with the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA. Officials say these penalties could block up to $7 billion in assets and result in $11 billion export losses over the next year, starving the regime from its most important source of revenue and foreign currency. The American government had shied away from such broad economic sanctions in the past, fearful that they would aggravate the humanitarian crisis in the country as they did in countries like Cuba and Iran. For the most part, its sanctions toward Venezuela have been targeted at officials accused of human rights abuses, corruption, or drug trafficking. But while those penalties have hurt individuals, they have so far failed to generate a transition. Oil sanctions may be needed to trigger negotiations or allow for the establishment of an interim government, but they also risk making the regime more aggressive. Geoff Ramsey, an analyst at the Washington Office in Latin America, told CNN that the sanctions constitute a huge gamble: “We know for certain that this will have an impact on the Venezuelan people, who are already struggling with an economic crisis. What we don’t know is whether this will for sure lead to some kind of restoration of democracy.”

In addition to barring transactions between American enterprises and PDVSA, the sanctions prevent the Venezuelan government from accessing refineries in the United States operated by subsidiary CITGO. The Trump administration has ordered the company to divert its payments for Venezuelan crude into a blocked bank account from which only Guaidó will be able to draw funds. Additionally, it has offered him $20 million in humanitarian aid. Providing the opposition with access to these resources could help it garner support: the interim president told The Washington Post that aid would pose a “new dilemma for the regime and the armed forces. They’ll have to decide if they’re on the side of the people and want to heal the country, or if they will ignore it. I believe we’re going to achieve it. They’re going to let it in.” The first shipment of medical supplies arrived at the Colombian border on February 6, but it has not yet been allowed to cross over into Venezuela.

Economic and diplomatic pressure by the United States has raised the stakes in the Venezuelan crisis, putting the government on the defensive and increasing the leverage of the opposition. While it is possible that will facilitate democratic transition, it carries enormous risks. By assuming a leading role, the Trump administration is alienating actors at home and abroad who oppose his policies and want the United States to stay out of the process. The measures taken by his government are clearly not selfless—they respond to an interest to access the country’s natural resources and establish allied governments in the region. The humanitarian aid provided to the opposition comes with strings attached, committing succeeding governments to implement policies amicable to the United States. It is also uncertain whether the Trump administration will limit itself to economic and diplomatic measures or end up pursuing military action. Last year, a report by The New York Times revealed that members of his government had met with a dissident group in the Venezuelan military planning a coup d’état but ultimately decided not to support them. These past weeks government officials have insisted that “all options are on the table.”




There is no guarantee that a military coup would lead to the establishment of a democratic government, and an international invasion would be a catastrophe. If the opposition desires a peaceful solution to the crisis, led by Venezuelan civilians, it must carefully weigh its alliances to the armed forces and foreign governments and avoid becoming a player in a game it cannot control. No transition will be perfect— concessions will have to be made­— but the leadership must be the one to set the terms of engagement and avoid commitments that may compromise the people’s right to self-determination. For many Venezuelans today, the future looks brighter than it has for a long time, but darkness looms next door.


ORIANA VAN PRAAG B’19.5 has a complicated relationship to hope.