The stand off between the two claimants to supreme power in Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro, and the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, approached a climax as thousands of tonnes of needed relief materials, piled up at the Colombian border at the weekend but could not be distributed. Maduro ridicules the aid and has ordered the armed forces not to let it into country because Venezuela is not a ‘beggar’ nation. Donations from the United States are particularly unwelcomed because, the president alleged, they might be carcinogenic and could be used as a pretext by the United States to finally execute its long contemplated invasion of Venezuela.
It must be admitted that, as a historical fact, there has been no love lost between the ‘capitalist’ government of the United States and ‘revolutionary socialist’ Venezuela since 2002 when the US government prematurely celebrated the overthrow of the charismatic President Hugo Chavez. Successive US presidents inherited the enmity. Maduro was Chavez’s chosen successor, although he seems to lack Chavez’s political gifts. But ever since, all national difficulties in Venezuela have tended to be blamed on the United States. The gesture is returned by the US which never sees anything positive in Venezuelan government’s policies.
Venezuelans deserve commendation for their forbearance, tolerance, and patience. The country has starving children in hospitals that can no longer give them adequate treatment owing to the shortage of regular drugs. It is estimated that at least 40,000 Venezuelans walk across the border into Colombia daily in search of basic things like toiletries, flour, basic food and medicines because the shelves in Venezuela are absolutely empty. People have given up foraging in refuse dumps for food because nothing is left. Given the enormous resources the country is blessed with, including the largest oil reserves in the world, the country is not and cannot be a ‘beggar’nation. Yet there is an element of self-deception in pretending that the country from which three million starving and distressed citizens have fled can block international assistance of more than $100 million in the face of extreme indigence. Indeed, it is the view of most Venezuela watchers that the government has often tried to deal with the crisis by denying its existence.
The Brookings Institution, a highly regarded Washington think-tank, has said of Venezuela that it “has really become the poster child for how the combination of corruption, economic mismanagement and undemocratic governance can lead to widespread suffering.” The leaders of Venezuela since Chavez were always conscious of the enormous wealth of their country. They, however, never gave much thought that the wealth had limits. The result was a menu of subsidies and free offers to voters by the government including an excellent free adult education programme, which led the country to declare itself “a territory free of illiteracy.” By 2015 when oil price collapsed government failed to cut spending, so debts began to pile up and hyper-inflation began to ravage the economy. If Maduro undermined his power and authority through gross mismanagement of the Venezuelan economy, he did much worse on the political side of things. He contrived a 2018 re-election scheme which violated all known rules of a democratic election. It was then repudiated by his opponents and international observers as fraudulent and unconstitutional. The National Assembly rejected the results calling them “electoral farce” and declared Maduro “a usurper.” The Assembly was left with no choice but to invoke clauses in the 1999 Constitution to install the National Assembly Speaker, Juan Guaido, as acting president.
Maduro was denied a seat in the 8th Summit of the Americas because “the rupture of democracy constitutes an insuperable obstacle for the participation of a state in the summit of the Americas.” At least 50 nation states have recognized Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela. Maduro is supported by the socialist/communist governments of Russia, China, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia. It is a riddle the presence of South Africa in that group, but given Venezuela’s activist role it is likely Pretoria is returning a historical favour.
The survival of the Maduro regime is in doubt unless it acts quickly and calls a presidential election. Alternatively, it could dig in for a long stay thereby prolonging the suffering of the people. Everyone has been hesitant to provoke a military confrontation. Even US President, Donald Trump, has tamped down his rhetoric. He did not threaten Maduro but appealed to the Venezuelan military to withdraw its support from Maduro. The UN Secretary-General should use his good offices to broker a peace deal and hammer out a face-saving compromise to peacefully ease out Maduro with the promise of fresh presidential election conducted by a truly independent umpire actively supervised by the international community led by the UN. The world should help Venezuelans make a new beginning to reconstruct their devastated country.