What is happening in Venezuela?

venezThe country’s economy is in a wreck, but the West’s backing to the current preposterous coup reeks of hypocrisy and partisanship 

Imagine Chuck Schumer of America’s Democratic Party, the Senate minority leader, calls for an anti-Trump rally in Washington DC and declares himself the President of the United States before his supporters, and he’s recognised by a host of America’s rival countries. It will be absurd. What is happening in Venezuela is as absurd as this. On January 23, a day after the country saw a massive rally against President Nicolas Maduro, Juan Guaidó, President of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared himself the interim President of Venezuela in the middle of a street in Caracas before his supporters. Immediately, he was recognised by the U.S., Canada and a host of American countries such as Colombia, Argentina and Brazil. The new Brazilian government of far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro has offered financial and other support for the opposition. The Trump administration says it has all the options on the table to ensure a transition of power. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo terms Maduro former President of Venezuela.

All this is happening less than two weeks after Maduro was sworn in as President of Venezuela for a second six-year term. In the Presidential election held in May 2018, Maduro had won 67.8% votes against his immediate opponent’s 20.9%. The main opposition party Popular Will—the party of Guaidó—had boycotted the polls. In other words, Popular Will, which did not even contest the last Presidential election, has claimed to have taken the presidency and it has got recognition from Trump’s U.S. and Justin Trudeau’s Canada.

A crumbling country

Granted, the country is going through a serious economic crisis. The IMF has predicted that the country’s inflation will reach 10 million per cent this year. Venezuela has been facing food and medicines shortages. The economy has also shrunk over the last several years. If GDP growth was near 10% in 2006, it shrank 14.3% in 2018. In 2014, when oil prices were high, Venezuela’s GDP per capita was equivalent to $13,750. One year later, with dropping oil prices, it had fallen 7%. Almost 90% of the country’s population is living in poverty. The economic woes have also triggered a migrant exodus—about three million Venezuelans have fled the country, most since 2015, according to the UN.

Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil resources. Oil accounts for 90% of the country’s exports. It’s revenues from oil trade which former President Hugo Chavez used to fund his popular welfare programmes which had taken millions out of poverty. But when prices started falling in 2014, the country’s economy took a beating. Maduro’s government did not have a plan B. He also lacked the popularity and charisma of Chavez. Maduro also overplayed his hands. His tactic was to suppress the opposition protests. Despite the government’s heavy handedness (Leopoldo López, the main opposition leader and the guru of the self-appointed ‘interim President’ Guaidó, has been in jail and barred from political office since 2014), the opposition protests, mostly violent agitations, lingered.

After the opposition took majority in the National Assembly in the 2015 parliamentary election, Maduro went on a collision course with the lawmakers. In 2017, in the middle of the political crisis, he called for an election to form a new constituent assembly, which his party won, amid allegations of vote rigging. This move had taken even some of the leftist supporters of the government as they deem the Constitution, brought in when Chavez was in power, as a powerful document that powers their movement.

But whatever Maduro did, including the Constituent Assembly election or an early Presidential election, did not bring the protests to an end. The 35-year-old Guaidó rose as the face of the opposition in recent years. The opposition had also used excessive violence against the government and its socialist supporters. This had left Venezuelan cities, including Caracas, as permanent battlefields over the past two years.

But Maduro is not the only one responsible for the crisis. From the beginning, the opposition’s focus was not on getting the economic crisis resolved, but to oust Maduro. Some of the opposition elements were thugs who used large-scale violence against public properties and the government’s Socialist supporters. They were also allegedly getting support from the U.S. The sanctions the U.S. had imposed on Venezuela had only multiplied the economic crisis. In last July, Associated Press had reported that President Trump had even asked his advisers if the U.S. could invade the country.

This ain’t democracy

Guaidó’s declaration that he’s now the interim president should be seen against this background. Whatever Maduro’s problems are, toppling him using force and establishing an alternative authority is coup, that’s not democracy. If there are disputes about the presidential elections, the opposition should have settled it internally with the government. But by boycotting the election, they themselves rejected the democratic process. And it’s not the U.S.’s business to implant “democracy” in Venezuela.

It’s ironic that a country that has turned upside down both its domestic politics and foreign policy over an online campaign of Russian troll farms against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election is now making direct intervention in and threatening the use of military against a Venezuelan government. The U.S. had done that in 2002, when a coup briefly ousted President Chavez. The U.S. immediately recognised the coup leader Pedro Carmona as the new President. But the Venezuelan elites had to bring Chavez back to power amid popular protests. The U.S. and the Venezuelan opposition may be following the same script hoping that a less popular Maduro could be topped. But still, a coup will be called a coup.

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