Against all odds

Print edition : February 15, 2019

President Nicolas Maduro is sworn in by Venezuela’s Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno, at the Supreme Court in Caracas. Photo: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/REUTERS

Juan Guaido (centre), President of the National Assembly, greets supporters after arriving at the venue for a public session with members of the opposition in Caracas on January 11. Photo: Fernando Llano/AP

Venezuela braves the challenges posed by a hostile opposition backed by the United States and right-wing governments in the region as Nicolas Maduro is sworn in for a second term.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro was sworn in for a second six-year term in office on January 10. He had won the presidency in May 2018 after handily defeating the opposition. The oath-taking ceremony took place on the premises of the Supreme Court and not in the National Assembly, which is controlled by the opponents of the government and has been superseded by a National Constituent Assembly that was elected two years ago. Declared “null and void” for being in contempt of the Supreme Court in 2016, the National Assembly was misusing its legislative powers to undermine the government.

More than 90 countries were represented at the oath-taking ceremony, and among the foreign dignitaries present were the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Bolivia, and high-level delegations from Russia, China and Turkey. There were popular demonstrations in support of Maduro in the capital, Caracas, and other cities in the country. After the swearing-in, Maduro said: “I tell the people that the presidential stash is yours. It does not belong to the oligarchy or imperialism. It belongs to the sovereign people of Venezuela.” He accused “the most powerful empire in history [the United States]” of aggressive behaviour towards his country and called for an immediate summit of regional leaders so that issues could be discussed “face to face”.

Immediately after Maduro started his second term, Juan Guiado, 35, the extreme right-wing politician who was elected the new President of the National Assembly on January 5, proclaimed himself the legitimate “interim President” of the country and called on the people and the army to rise up in revolt. Guiado, who has very little following in the country, invoked Article 233 of Venezuela’s Constitution, which allows the head of the National Assembly to take over the powers of the presidency in rare instances of “a power vacuum”. The country was absolutely calm when his move came, five days after his election as leader of the National Assembly. Choreographed from Washington, it was timed to coincide with the start of Maduro’s second term in office.

Guiado was arrested after his proclamation and detained for a few hours. But Maduro ordered his immediate release on the grounds that the President of the National Assembly enjoys constitutional immunity. He said that his brief detention was an unauthorised act carried out by rogue officers, who have since been disciplined. Speaking to the members of the Constituent Assembly, he was dismissive of the machinations of the opposition, saying it had long sought to seize power through “adventure, improvisation and coups”. Their plans, Maduro stressed, were bound to fail again.

With U.S. suppport

Venezuela’s right wing, which refuses to recognise the results of the internationally monitored 2018 elections, was hoping to spark another round of violence but has failed miserably so far despite the open support from the U.S. and its allies in the region. Reports from Washington indicate that the Trump administration is seriously contemplating recognising Guiado as the “legitimate President” of Venezuela. John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, was quick to support Guiado’s grandstanding. He said Maduro should now step aside and that the U.S. would not recognise the “Maduro dictatorship’s illegitimate usurpation of power”. He also called on the Venezuelan military to “uphold the rule of law”, blatantly encouraging another coup attempt against an elected government. Vice President Mike Pence, in a telephonic conversation with Guiado, praised his “courageous leadership” and pledged continued American support “until democracy is restored”.

The U.S. State Department has pleaded with the Venezuelan army to work with the National Assembly for “a peaceful return to democracy”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also endorsed the “transfer of executive responsibility” to the National Assembly. In 2017, Trump had said that the U.S. had “many options for Venezuela, including a military option”. Last year, his administration held secret meetings with a few rebellious military officers from Venezuela. There was also an assassination attempt against Maduro in August 2018, and two army officers were among those arrested for the abortive attempt, in which two armed drones were used.

The Trump administration, according to reports, wants the opposition to get control of Venezuelan assets in the U.S., for instance, the oil company CITGO and the proceeds from Venezuela’s oil sales in the country. CITGO has a network of refineries and petrol stations in the U.S.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza issued a strong statement in response to the Trump administration’s desperate attempts to trigger chaos and anarchy in the region. He wrote on Twitter: “Venezuela demands respect for its democracy. While Maduro calls for respectful dialogue with the U.S., Secretary Pompeo and other extremist spokesmen look to destabilize the country and incite violence. The Venezuelan people will defend its sovereignty and its constitution.”

The Trump administration is least bothered about democracy worldwide and supports the most brutal and authoritarian regimes. Venezuela, on the other hand, is among the few countries that have been organising fair, free and transparent elections in the presence of international observers. Jimmy Carter had declared that the election system in the country was among the best in the world. “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we have monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world,” Carter said.

An important reason for Maduro’s May 2018 victory was that the opposition was disunited, with many of its leaders calling for a boycott. The U.S. had anyway said that it would not recognise the outcome irrespective of the results, although Henri Falcon, who was the opposition candidate, is a right-wing, pro-U.S. businessman. The Trump administration actively encouraged Venezuela’s opposition politicians to boycott the presidential election though Maduro went out of his way to accommodate many of their pre-election demands. Maduro, in fact, has been repeatedly asking the opposition to sit down and negotiate with the government to find a way out of the political and economic impasse the country is in. Many observers of the region attribute Maduro’s decisive victory to popular resentment against the open meddling by the U.S. in the internal affairs of the country.

The new extreme right-wing government in Brazil did not waste much time in diving headlong into the internal affairs of a neighbouring country. President Jair Bolsonaro said that Guiado was the legitimate President of Venezuela. Guiado has the support of the Argentine President, Mauricio Macri, another right-wing politician. Bolsonaro spoke of their “shared values” on the question of regime change in Venezuela.

Plan for regime change

The Trump administration is trying to instigate regime change in Venezuela through the auspices of the 13-member Lima Group, mainly comprising governments in the region that are currently governed by right-wing parties and Canada. It was formed after the U.S. failed in its manipulations to get the Organisation of American States (OAS) to remove Venezuela. Mexico, a member of the group, has now reverted to its traditional policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries. The new Mexican President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has in fact offered to mediate between the Venezuelan government and the opposition.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro is a virulent critic of Venezuela’s socialist government and has been on record advocating its violent overthrow. He issued a statement in the second week of January recognising Guiado as the “interim President” of Venezuela. Fidel Castro once described the OAS as a “Trojan Horse” of the U.S. Its influence faded considerably as the “pink tide” swept the continent at the beginning of the century and swept away right-wing governments. With the tide receding, the OAS is now seeking to once again impose Washington’s agenda in the region.

Maduro, who launched an ambitious “Economic Recovery Plan” last August, has said that his priority is arresting the economic free fall precipitated by U.S. economic sanctions and low oil prices. Inflation, currently among the highest in the world, is having an adverse impact on the populace. Around two million Venezuelans have reportedly crossed over to neighbouring countries because of economic difficulties. When the Venezuelan economy was booming, the country attracted millions of people from countries such as Colombia. The government is trying its best to ensure that the needy section is supplied with basic necessities. The anti-government business elite has profited enormously since the economic crisis hit in 2013 by creating artificial shortages and parking their profits and ill-gotten wealth in places like Miami.

Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, and its main focus will be on raising oil production. Oil accounted for 95 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. Throughout Hugo Chavez’s reign, oil prices were above the $100 mark. For the first time in Venezuelan history, oil wealth was used for the benefit of the masses. Oil prices continue to be at an unprecedented low for more than six years running. Yet, oil is still a source of valuable hard currency in a country that imports much of its food and other essential goods. Chinese and Russian companies have pledged help to the Venezuelan government in getting oil production back on track. In December, during Maduro’s visit to Moscow, Russia pledged to invest $5 billion in the oil sector and an additional $1 billion in the mining sector.

Helping hands

Venezuela has ramped up its gold and diamond exports and may soon emerge as their biggest exporter in the world. (The U.S. has banned the import of Venezuelan gold along with different varieties of its crude oil.) According to reports, Venezuela has been exporting its gold to Turkey for safekeeping and refining. Russia has agreed to supply Venezuela with 600,000 tonnes of wheat in 2019. More importantly, Russia has pledged to supply and maintain Venezuela’s military arsenal. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in his annual press conference in January, said that Moscow was alarmed by the Trump administration’s talk of possible military action against Venezuela. He also accused Washington of blocking the opposition from talking to the government in Caracas. He added that the American attitude was yet another illustration of the way Washington treated governments it did not like.

China, which is Venezuela’s main creditor, also backs the government. During Maduro’s visit to China in September, Premier Li Keqiang promised him that his government would “provide whatever help it can offer” to Venezuela. China has already lent $20 billion to Venezuela in the last 10 years and has pledged another $5 billion to bolster Venezuela’s oil sector. Venezuela is battling on, despite all the impediments being placed in its path by a hegemonic power and its local allies.

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