Venezuela has been experiencing massive political turbulence for the past several years and great contention since early 2018. This turbulence has been complicated further by US involvement and the possibility of US military engagement.
Nicolás Maduro became the President of Venezuela in 2013 after the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Maduro, backed by Russia, claims to have been re-elected to a new term in May of 2018, but many disagree. He won in an, “election widely viewed as rigged.” The backdrop of Venezuela’s political problems is a crumbling economy that began declining in the early 2000s and dramatically declining in 2011.
Venezuela is an oil-rich country, which usually correlates to a booming economy and national wealth. However, governmental mismanagement and corruption decimated the state-run oil company. Former Venezuelan President, Hugo Chávez, aided in the circa 2011 collapse of the oil firm when he, “diverted [the firm’s operating budget] into programs for Mr. Chávez’s political base, payoffs for government cronies and subsidies to keep his promise of affordable food.” Profits of the state oil firm, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), plummeted while global oil prices rose.
More recently, the struggling Venezuelan oil market has contributed to widespread economic problems where, “food has grown so scarce that three in four citizens reported involuntary weight loss, averaging 19 pounds in a year.” The pervasive poverty prompted politicians and citizens alike to admonish Maduro. Knowledge of the economic hardship in Venezuela led, “[m]any world leaders, analysts and rights groups [to] blame Maduro for enabling the country’s spiraling problems such as hyperinflation, crime, hunger and shortages of medicine and basic goods.”
Maduro’s declining popularity incited countries such as, Canada, the U.S., and several Latin American countries to refuse to recognize Maduro’s legitimacy. This prompted Maduro to cut off diplomatic ties with the US, expelling ambassadors to Venezuela. In retaliation, the U.S. imposed sanctions and issued official warnings to Maduro.
The U.S. has expressed support for Maduro’s opposition, Juan Guaidó. Guaidó, who lost in the May 2018 Presidential election, alleges that, “the 2018 election was rigged and that he, as the head of the National Assembly (the country’s legislative body), is now the rightful president according to the country’s constitution.” The opposition leader Guaidó has declared himself the interim president, until new elections can be held. The opposition has been staging protests in an attempt to oust Maduro.
Protests have been occurring for months, but on April 7th, Guaidó organized massive protests, which he refers to as the “definitive phase,” to pressure Maduro into resignation. The demonstrations, known as “Operation Freedom,” spread across the nation, but were concentrated in the capital city of Caracas. According to El Nacional, “[a]bout 30 demonstrators were injured in clashes with police in the northwestern city [Maracaibo.]” In addition, two prominent opposition leaders were temporarily arrested.
The timing of these rallies was especially significant considering shortly before them, “the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly stripped Guaidó of his parliamentary immunity, opening the possibility of his arrest.” The political repression enacted by Maduro and his associates makes it difficult to discern the true attitudes of Venezuelans toward Maduro and Guaidó. The suppression tactics include police force and intimidation by the paramilitary groups that support Maduro.
In Venezuela, political protesting can be dangerous as Maduro has a history of repressing political opponents. For example, the former leader of Voluntad Popular, the opposition party that Guaidó now leads, was detained in 2014 for leading anti-Maduro protests. The violence enacted by Maduro has drawn condemnation from human rights groups and other countries
According to Pres. Trump, American military involvement remains on the table. The idea of U.S. foreign involvement installing a dictator reminds of how war in Afghanistan and Iraq began. Also, considering Russia’s support of Maduro, some are fearful of more Cold War-style proxy wars between Russia and the U.S.
Some Venezuelans, even those who oppose Maduro, still don’t want the U.S. to stage a coup and usurp their democracy. American intervention in Latin America begun as early as the mid-19th century. One of the first and most dramatic invasions of Latin America being the Mexican-American War in which nearly half of Mexico’s land was stolen. According to historian John Coatsworth, “[t]he United States participated, directly or indirectly, in Latin American regime change more than 40 times in the last century.”
Much of the instability present in Latin America today is due to these American interventions, including many Cold War proxy wars between the U.S. and Russia. Increasingly distraught Venezuelans are migrating to bordering countries, primarily Columbia, for refuge from the political and economic strife. Even though some Venezuelans oppose the ousting of Maduro in principle, the problems in the country caused some to defect to support Guaidó.
The U.S. entertaining possible military intervention would add to the violence present in the Venezuelan socio-political sphere. John Feeley, former U.S. ambassador to Panamá, said “the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America is such that it always seems to engender a worse backlash than the original issue that mattered to American interests.” Additionally, the opinion of Mexico’s former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda is that a U.S. intervention could enrage left-leaning Latin Americans and prompt stronger support for Maduro.
The implications of further intervention in Venezuela extend beyond just Maduro and Guiadó. Future American actions will determine if and when we should become involved in the internal affairs of another nation.