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Protests against Nicolás Maduro's regime, Caracas, Venezuela, 05/01/2019© Julio Lovera / Shutterstock

Venezuela Crisis: Nicolás Maduro Has Made a Bad Situation Worse

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Robert Patman, professor of international relations at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

Venezuela is in the midst of a severe socio-economic and political crisis. President Nicolás Maduro faces growing pressure, both domestically and internationally, to step down. The current crisis in has been mounting since May 2018, when President Maduro was re-elected in a highly disputed election to lead the country for a second six-year term. The opposition-controlled national assembly didn’t recognize the results, claiming electoral fraud and vote rigging. A year on, more than 50 countries across the globe recognize the national assembly majority leader, Juan Guaidó, as Venezuela’s interim president.

Hyperinflation, which reached an astronomical 10 million percent this year, violence, and food and medicine shortages have produced Latin America’s largest migration wave in recent years, with a reported 3.4 million Venezuelans leaving the country. It is believed that the crisis is the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the Western hemisphere today, and the UN estimates that there will be 5.3 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants by the end of 2019, threatening to overtake the Syrian refugee crisis in scale.

The secretary general of the Organization of American States said last year that “newborns in Syria have a better chance of survival than those born in Venezuela today.” According to a recent report by the United Nations, 3.7 million Venezuelans are undernourished, and 3 million children are missing all or some of their schooling. Food insecurity, inadequacy of health care, lack of access to water and sanitation, and the rise of human trafficking shape the realities of a country that once boasted a flourishing economy thanks to the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

The US government has been endeavoring for months to remove Maduro from power and supports Juan Guaidó’s claim to the presidency. Officials in the Trump administration have voiced the option of military intervention to topple the government in Caracas, something President Donald Trump is himself opposed to.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Robert Patman, professor of international relations at the University of Otago, New Zealand, about the crisis in Venezuela, and the country’s economic and political prospects.

The text has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: Can you give us a picture of what’s happening in Venezuela? What are the causes of the socio-economic and political crisis in the country? It’s said that everything started during the presidency of Hugo Chávez. Why has the crisis continued for so long, and why has the government failed to address it effectively?

Robert Patman: Today, Venezuela is experiencing a multifaceted crisis. A socio-economic and political crisis that had its roots in the presidency of Hugo Chávez has escalated during the presidency of Nicolás Maduro. It is characterized by rampant inflation, rising levels of hunger, disease, crime and an exodus of large numbers people from the country.

In many ways, the dire situation in Venezuela is the result of economic mismanagement and an unreformed, energy dependent economy. During the first decade of Chavez’s leadership after 1999, Venezuela benefited from high oil prices on the global market and introduced an ambitious range of public services that were designed to improve the economic, social and cultural conditions of many Venezuelans. But those policies proved to be unsustainable. By 2010, global oil prices began to fall, and economic growth faltered in Venezuela. The Chávez leadership had missed the chance during the years of high oil prices to diversify country’s economy. With continued downward pressure on oil prices, Venezuela’s economy since 2013 has significantly contracted.

While Maduro inherited a fast-declining economy from Chávez in 2013, his policies made an already bad situation worse. The Maduro regime resorted to repressive measures to counter large public protests against food shortages in the country. The 2018 presidential election, which produced a victory for Maduro, was widely condemned for blatant electoral irregularities, including ballot rigging.

Such circumstances have led to an extraordinary situation in Venezuela where the legitimacy of Maduro’s presidency is openly challenged by Juan Guaidó, a key figure in the opposition People’s Will party and president of the country’s national assembly. Guaidó declared himself president in January 2019. The Trump administration and 54 other states quickly recognized Guaidó’s claim, but to date Maduro has managed — largely thanks to the support of the Venezuelan military — to face down Guaidó’s attempts to oust him from power.

Ziabari: What is at stake for the United States in the Venezuelan saga? Why is the Trump administration so adamant in calling for the ouster of Nicolás Maduro?

Patman: The stakes for the US in Venezuela have risen with the arrival of the Trump administration in Washington in January 2017. Relations between the two states had been strained during the Bush and Obama years. But Trump’s uncompromising opposition to Maduro’s left-wing authoritarian regime seems to be linked to a reinvigorated nationalist determination to “Make America Great Again” and project American power against its perceived enemies, particularly if they happen to be in the US’ neighborhood.

On January 28, 2019, the Trump administration announced tough sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PDVSA. This measure effectively phased out American imports of oil from Venezuela. At the same time, President Trump in February 2019 described US military force as an option if the Maduro regime did not step down. And John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, has publicly invoked the idea of the Monroe Doctrine in the context of the Maduro regime in Venezuela. In short, the Trump administration appears determined to accelerate efforts to achieve regime change in Caracas.

Ziabari: Juan Guaidó has called on the Trump administration to support his efforts to overthrow the Maduro government. Should Trump launch a military intervention in Venezuela?

Patman: The answer is an emphatic no. Juan Guaidó’s public request for American military support was not particularly smart in political terms. Given America’s history of interference in Latin America during the Cold War era, it is likely any attempt by the Trump administration to use force to back Guaidó’s presidential aspirations runs the risk of rallying Venezuelans behind a Maduro regime playing the nationalist card. After all, Maduro has been claiming all along the current crisis in Venezuela is the result of Yankee imperialism, and direct intervention by the Trump administration would seem only to reinforce that narrative.

Besides, for other liberal democracies, it is important that the Trump administration conducts itself in a manner consistent with respect for an international rules-based system. To date, Trump has shown little regard for the multilateral system. The American withdrawal from agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal has been interpreted by many other liberal democracies as a form of unilateralism that diminishes America’s role as global leader. It is important that Trump does not strengthen that impression by launching an intervention that could bolster what is a failing regime in Caracas. Ultimately, it is the Venezuelan people that must decide the political destiny of their own country.

Ziabari: The European Union called the 2018 presidential election in Venezuela “neither free, nor fair” and stated that Maduro has started a new mandate “on the basis of non-democratic elections.” Are there indications of irregularities in the last year’s elections? Did Maduro manipulate the vote?

Patman: The US, the EU and the 14 Latin American states that comprise the Lima Group have all condemned the May 2018 presidential election in Venezuela as neither fair nor free.

Ziabari: Inflation rate had hit 1.35 million percent in Venezuela last year. What does this staggering figure tell us about the state of Venezuela’s economy?

Patman: According to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela’s inflation rate is expected to reach 10 million percent later this year. The staggeringly high inflation rate has made it virtually impossible for people to obtain cash, and for many citizens the barter economy has become a reality of daily life. The IMF [International Monetary Fund] has also predicted Venezuela’s economy will shrink by at least 5% in 2019. In short, the economic and social outlook for many Venezuelans is pretty disastrous.

Ziabari: Proponents of the Venezuelan government say the current crisis should be blamed on the international sanctions imposed on Venezuela. However, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights reported in 2018 that the crisis had been in the offing several years before the imposition of the sanctions. What’s your take on the impact of sanctions on the current situation in Venezuela?

Patman: I think the impact of the Trump administration’s economic sanctions has been very significant. These have targeted Venezuela’s oil sector and effectively shut down the prospect of the Maduro regime negotiating loans from US banks. There is a parallel here with the US application of sanctions against the Allende regime before the military coup of 1973 when President Nixon threatened to “make the Chilean economy scream.”

However, I think there is an awareness in the US and the international community of the humanitarian consequences that these economic sanctions can have. Humanitarian aid could mitigate some of the negative consequences on the Venezuelan people, but unless the Maduro regime truly opens up the country to humanitarian assistance, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the situation is likely to get much worse for many people in Venezuela in the near future.

Ziabari: Researchers have documented a significant rise in the homicide rate in Venezuela, which has plunged the nation into a public health crisis. It’s said that one of the causes is the government’s policy of providing its supporters with arms to suppress protests. What do you think about the spike of violence in Venezuela, which was once one of the most peaceful countries in the world, and its connections with the ongoing crisis?

Patman: The Maduro regime’s tactic of arming its supporters to help suppress protesters may prolong regime survival in the short term by further polarizing and dividing Venezuela, but it will do nothing in the long term to reduce the number of people that see the regime as corrupt, incompetent and brutal.

Ziabari: Will Maduro be able to weather the current storm by forging closer alliances with countries such as China, Russia, Turkey and Iran? Will these partnerships help him retain power and move past the crisis he is going through?

Patman: A number of authoritarian regimes like China and Russia have expressed, in strong terms, solidarity with the Maduro regime. They don’t seem to have any reservations about the political and economic political direction of the repressive Maduro regime. China has invested substantially in the Venezuelan oil sector. And while Beijing has emerged as an important economic actor in Latin America, it does not have a political track record of intervening in the region to protect particular governments or regimes.

Russia may feel more exposed by the Venezuelan crisis. The Putin regime has some military advisers on the ground in the country, and has invested over $17 billion in the country’s military and oil industry. It could stand to lose substantially if the Maduro regime is overthrown or displaced by a popular uprising. Some observers have spoken of the possibility of a US-Russian Cold War over Venezuela. But such claims are exaggerated. The Trump administration and the Putin regime may be backing different political sides in the Venezuelan crisis, but such alignments seem to be based on diverging interests rather than ideology per se.

Developments in Venezuela could strain US-Russian relations, but Presidents Trump and Putin are unlikely to allow this crisis to undermine what has been a close relationship between these two leaders.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.