The legitimacy of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been challenged by Juan Guaidó, the 35-year-old leader of the Venezuelan national legislature, who on Thursday swore himself in as president. This is the latest development in an ongoing crisis in Venezuela that’s inevitably disastrous and carries profound implications for not only millions of impoverished Venezuelans, but for the rest of South America and the United States. It’s also complicated, not just because internal politics are fraught, but because a lot of Americans—myself included—have the ignominious luxury of ignorance. Venezuela’s budding revolution, however, is among the most important humanitarian crises in the world, and we should learn a lot more about what’s going on there, how we might respond, and what, exactly, is the right course of action.
Hint: There is no right course of action.
Here, then, in an American-media-consumer-sized 1,000 words and change, is the baseline information you need to know in order to grasp, basically, the massive upheaval in this Western-hemisphere, authoritarian petro-state that could fall apart literally any day.
Guaidó, a member of the centrist social-democratic Voluntad Popular party, says Maduro rigged his re-election and is illegitimate. Guaidó leads the legislature, so Venezuela’s constitution makes him temporary president. He promises fair elections soon.
The U.S. recognized Guaidó, followed by eleven countries—including Canada and several Latin- and South American countries—and the E.U. Thousands marched in support of Guaidó, but Maduro—who has less than 20% approval but still controls the military—won’t resign. Showdown looms.
Millions are literally starving. Maduro assumed the presidency in 2013, but the economy immediately plunged, resulting in, for example, food and medicine shortages that between 2015 and 2016 caused 75% of the population to lose 19 pounds per person. The government has a weird currency exchange program that led to runaway inflation, and now it can’t afford to fly in the planeloads of cash it prints outside the country. Venezuela can’t afford its own money.
Maduro can’t manage the crisis. He’s jailed opposition members, and his security forces have killed several dozen demonstrators. A peaceful resolution isn’t likely.
Venezuela is a socialist petro-state. The government controls the major industries. It prospered for years thanks to the global oil boom in the 90s and 2000s, when it was led by dictatorial Hugo Chávez, upon whose death in 2013 Maduro took control.
Often demonized, the charismatic Chávez had successes. He redistributed profits to his people and invested in social programs, cutting unemployment and poverty in half, doubling household incomes, and improving infant mortality. He used authoritarian tactics, but unlike Maduro understood the price of that power is legitimacy. Chávez regularly submitted himself to public referenda and didn’t “steal or cancel elections blatantly,” as the editor of Caracas Chronicles told Vox.
Global oil prices crashed in Maduro’s first year, revealing problems hidden under Chávez. But Maduro doesn’t have Chávez’s charisma and can’t connect with his people, which in a socialist state is a death sentence. The vast majority of Venezuelans want him out, though mainly they just want food and medicine. This isn’t “socialism’s fault.” It’s a corrupt authoritarian regime overly dependent on a single industry. Anyway, the desperate Maduro rigged two recent elections, including his own. That was stupid.
Collapse presents a massive geopolitical and humanitarian challenge, and it would create chaos in Latin America. Refugees would flood neighboring countries, stressing social systems and exacerbating crime. In 2017 Venezuelans led asylum seekers in the U.S.
That same year, the U.S. sanctioned Maduro, his senior officials, and the state-owned oil company. Trump said that summer, out of nowhere, he wouldn’t rule out a “military option,” which earlier this week he repeated. The Pentagon’s former lead in South America says there’s no “good reason” for intervention.
It would be dumb. Maduro has the support of the military, which numbers over 500,000 members. Even if a U.S.-led coalition took Maduro down, we’d have to administer a failed state. See: Iraq. However, any conflict—internal or intervention—will only worsen existing problems, likely radicalizing people to the point of insurrection.
U.S. hawks therefore might bank on another possibility: Venezuela’s rank-and-file soldiers feel the same pain as everyone else, so it’s anyone’s guess if they’d obey government orders or turn their guns around and fight Maduro. Again: Iraq.
In any case, the U.S. seems to have committed itself to materially supporting the opposition. If Guadió succeeds—and given Maduro’s control, he might not—it will likely demand hundreds of millions in humanitarian aide and other resources to keep peace.
Who knows? Trump might pull a “wag the dog.” There’s a fair humanitarian argument to be made, though Trump would be attacked for committing military resources to a foreign government while keeping his own shuttered. But he seems interested in regime change only for one reason, maybe two.
One: Own the libs. Socialist Venezuela has long been a rhetorical punching bag for the right wing. Ironically, Trump seems to have committed to socialism itself: Giving the Venezuelan government resources it can distribute to its people. Also, Trump’s man Guadió identifies as a democratic socialist—just like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez!
Two: Oil. To that end it’s worth noting the U.S., due to our own fracking boom, indirectly contributed to the economic collapse we might now have to fix. Our strict sanctions also created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Socialism fails!
But Trump hasn’t applied this logic to other autocratic regimes, e.g., Russia and Saudi Arabia. When pressed on this an anonymous administration official told reporters the U.S. is only obligated to democracies in the Western Hemisphere. This is the freaking Monroe Doctrine from 1823, which FDR also used to explain why we didn’t intervene in the holocaust.
Political violence seems all but inevitable. Hopefully Maduro falls to a more humane and democratic government. Hopefully we stay out of it, let Venezuelans decide their future, and commit aide commensurate to the depth of whatever crisis ensues. Trump will politicize it and cast himself a champion for capitalism and democracy, but his schizophrenic policies condemn him to hypocrisy. Be prepared, though, for childish insults from right-wingers who in their desperation to own the libs mock the very thing they purport to care about: The millions of starving, desperate South Americans they don’t want to let in to our prosperous, expansive nation.