What Happened This Week:
The U.S. government continues to tighten the screws on Nicolas Maduro’s regime in Venezuela; on Monday, the Trump administration announced extensive sanctions against Venezuela’s state-oil giant Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) in a push to collapse the regime in favor of Venezuela’s parliamentary leader and self-proclaimed “interim president,” the 35-year-old engineer Juan Guaido. On Tuesday, the Trump administration handed control to a number of Venezuelan government accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York over to Guaido, ratcheting up pressure further.
Why It Matters:
Because Venezuela continues to be the world’s worst economic-cum-humanitarian disaster. The economic policies of the Maduro administration have largely been an attempt to replicate the socialist welfare policies of late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who presided over the country at a time of sky-high oil prices. Unfortunately for both Maduro and the Venezuelan people, those ambitious government programs can’t be funded in today’s oil price environment, compounded by woeful economic mismanagement from the Maduro administration. To date, 3 million Venezuelans (roughly 10 percent of the country) have fled the country in search of a better life elsewhere.
Unfortunately, many of those who’ve fled are among the most-educated and most politically-connected—precisely the folks who would be leading the political charge against the Maduro regime. The opposition that remains is fractured and leaderless. Or at least it was until last week, when Guaido, the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared himself the rightful leader of Venezuela until free and fair elections can be held to replace Maduro.
Unsurprisingly, Maduro refused to recognize the legitimacy of Guaido; somewhat more surprisingly, dozens of governments around the world, many of whom have been critical of Maduro but had been wary of wading into the domestic affairs of a foreign country, have voiced their support for Guaido.
What Happens Next:
The most noticeable group to not voice support for Guaido is the leadership of Venezuela’s military, who continue to publicly pledge allegiance to Maduro. And no matter how many international sanctions the Maduro regime is slapped with—and however much the Venezuelan people suffer as a result—so long as the military remains behind Maduro, he’ll be the one calling the shots on the ground in Venezuela. It’s the recognition of this reality that prompted the leaders of the world’s most prominent autocracies—among them Russia, Turkey, Iran and China—to continue recognizing Maduro.
Be that as it may, Guaido has injected real momentum into Venezuela’s fractured political opposition, and at a time it desperately needed it. But plenty of dangers remain. Chief among them is just how critical Guaido is to this nascent opposition movement; should anything happened to him personally, the entire movement is at risk of losing momentum. To Guaido’s credit, he’s not backing down, daring the Maduro regime to kidnap him in public speeches. Guaido’s seems to believe the movement is bigger than he is. That remains to be seen.
Another key danger not to be overlooked is that the U.S.—and by extension Donald Trump—are now personally invested in the political developments brewing in Venezuela. If the Maduro regime does indeed go after Guaido, Washington will be hard-pressed not to get involved given its very public support of Guaido. All things being equal, there is a greater chance that the current political standoff ends with Maduro leaving than with the U.S. sending in troops to Caracas. But the risk of extreme scenarios (both good and bad) is only rising.
The Key Number That Explains It:
At least two dozen countries recognize the Guaido interim government. The West needed a rallying figure to throw its support behind, and it seems to have gotten its wish with Guaido. But formally recognizing someone and going to the mat for them are two different things.
The Key Quote That Sums It All Up:
“The military tends to gravitate towards real alternatives of power. The issue is whether Guaido embodies a real alternative of power and I think the answer, for the first time in a long time, is yes.” – Rocio San Miguel, Venezuelan military expert
The One Thing to Read About It:
For some proper context, read this New Yorker profile of Maduro and Venezuela from December 2017.
The One Major Misconception About It:
That Russia, a key backer of the Maduro regime, is the real power broker in Venezuela’s current political crisis. This is not a situation like Syria or Ukraine, where the Russians have the numbers on the ground to push political developments in their preferred direction. And for all their hostile rhetoric in support of Maduro, the Russians are quietly working on figuring out what to do with him. There are even rumors that they’ve started scouting houses for him in Cuba. That makes sense—Russia needs to play ball with the international community on this one or risk losing all influence they had over Caracas.
The One Thing to Say About It:
In an era of increasing nationalist sentiment, there’s still room to care about what happens in other foreign countries—provided that the foreign country controls the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is already a failed state and just happens to reaffirm all the worst things supporters of capitalism believe about socialism.
The One Thing to Avoid Saying About It:
Maduro was famed for hosting salsa lessons while his country starved. Talk about tone deaf.
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