The struggle for power in oil-rich Venezuela is now more precarious, after Juan Guaidó – who until recently was an unknown congressman and the Head of the National Assembly – was sworn in as interim president, and as foreign actors are no longer spectators but protagonists.
Upending the playing field: Venezuela’s two presidents
The current political crisis began on May 20, when Nicolás Maduro ran for reelection and won amid the lowest voter turnout in Venezuelan history. The National Assembly refused to acknowledge said elections, as major opposition parties were banned, and therefore denounced the results as illegal and illegitimate.
By this premise, Maduro’s second term is considered unconstitutional and under Article 233 the Head of the Legislative must take charge of the presidency, thereby giving power to Guaidó. Thirteen days after Maduro was sworn by a Supreme Court stacked with regime loyalists, Guaidó took an oath to end the usurpation of power, lead a transition government, and have free elections.
Today, Venezuela has two presidents. Maduro controls the battered oil industry, showcases loyalty from the military, and has a police apparatus at his disposal. Guaidó has united the opposition, rallied strong popular support within Venezuela, and is recognized as the legitimate Head of State internationally by almost all of Western Hemisphere countries, the European Parliament, and the United States. The standoff has reached a point of no return, where one side’s survival is only guaranteed by an absolute victory over the other.
A regional problem shakes the geopolitical landscape
Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Panamá, Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador have received approximately 2.4 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees, from a world total of 3.2 million. The exodus is the hemisphere’s largest humanitarian crisis in over a generation and explains why regional diplomacy has for the past year insisted on regime change in Venezuela, demonstrated by the Lima Group (a coalition of 11 Latin American countries and Canada) and the Secretariat of the Organization of American States backing Guaidó’s interim government.
The game changer has been the U.S. endorsement of Guaidó, prompting Maduro to freeze all diplomatic and consular relations with Washington and turn towards his allies in Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran. While Bolivia and Nicaragua immediately backed the chavista regime, Mexico and Uruguay have remained neutral, advocating for dialogue within Venezuela.
The European Parliament voted to recognize Guaidó 439 votes to 104 following a previous eight-day ultimatum on the regime by Britain, France, Germany, and Spain calling for new presidential elections. Additionally, the European Council has created an international working group promoting a common diplomatic approach for a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis. Overall, more than 20 of the bloc’s 28 member states already recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
Crucial days for U.S foreign policy in Latin America
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo strongly advocated to support Gualdó at the UN Security Council on January 26th stating, “The time is now to support the Venezuelan people, to recognize the new democratic government…it’s time for every other nation to pick a side.” Additionally, it has been found that President Trump had a previously coordinated strategy with Guaidó and is pressuring Maduro to resign. This stance was highlighted after the administration announced sanctions blocking Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, from $7 billion in assets in the United States.
The new sanctions could mean up to $11 billion in losses for the Maduro government and ban American companies from doing business with PDVSA, a hard blow as Venezuela imports large sums of diluents to refine gasoline and PDVSA receives over 80 percent of its direct cash flow from U.S. imports. Sanctions on Venezuela’s key industry are a point of no return for the White House and the countries willing to proceed similarly, and signals regime change in Venezuela as the administration’s priority in Latin America.
It is unlikely the White House will lift the oil sanctions, especially if the opposition continues to gain momentum. However, the Trump administration should publicly reject any idea of military intervention in Venezuela, which would torpedo the cooperation achieved thus far with Latin American countries and could have the counter effect of encouraging the military — Maduro’s main locus of power — to maintain their support.
The deadlock between these two presidents could last months, in which case the sanctions will have a damaging impact on the Venezuelan economy, further affecting its people’s daily lives. If it comes to that, the White House will need to prioritize delivering humanitarian aid in coordination with the interim government and the Lima Group to those who will continue to leave the country. Policies could also include Venezuelans residing in the United States, and take into consideration a recent bipartisan initiative to grant Temporary Protection Status (TPS) to undocumented Venezuelans in the country.
Whichever is the outcome of the conflict, the Trump administration is playing a decisive role and its foreign policy towards Latin America will be judged by what it manages to achieve. Venezuela appears as an outlier in President Trump’s isolationist approach, and there is a chance to stand with the region in pushing for a democratic transition. However, this stance must respect Venezuela’s territorial sovereignty and the will of its people.
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Fidel Márquez Barroeta is a recent graduate from the Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He has recently worked as a teaching assistant for GW’s Department of Political Science and as an intern at the Inter American Dialogue. He follows foreign policy and environmental issues related to Brazil and Venezuela. Twitter handle: @fidelmarquez87