Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He grew up in Latin America and now runs TRD Policy.
Lacking the persuasive skills of their charismatic predecessor, the leader lives on borrowed time. A disastrous election campaign took away the government’s parliamentary majority. The streets have been filled with opposition demonstrators. Regional allies have turned against their former friend. The administration’s policy provokes only exasperation from economists. Its oil resources are not what they once were. Opposition media are filled with stories of food shortages and stockpiling. Hints are dropped of emergency powers and even the declaration of martial law. European Union leaders have turned up the pressure by demanding concessions by a strict deadline.
But whereas Theresa May managed this week to retain control of Britain’s legislative agenda (the Cooper and Grieve amendments having been defeated thanks at least in part to Labour frontbenchers breaking their whip), Nicolas Maduro is in a much deeper hole.
Having been defeated in elections for the national assembly in 2015, he got his handpicked Supreme Court to anoint a puppet parliament and remains in office as an unvarnished dictator. His security forces torture and imprison opposition leaders while his country goes without food. Three million Venezuelans have fled – to America, Spain and Chile if they can; to Colombia, Peru and Ecuador if they must.
Last week, Juan Guaidó, the young head of the democratically elected National Assembly — himself only installed because Leopoldo López, the real leader, has been placed under house arrest by the regime — declared the presidency vacant, and, under Venezuela´s constitution, proclaimed himself interim president, and demanded free elections.
He immediately received the support of the Organisation of American States, and with it the democratically elected governments of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay and the United States as well as several smaller countries. Britain has followed their lead.
The European Union is due to follow suit. Led by Spain’s centre-left government, they gave Maduro days to agree to hold free elections, and will transfer recognition to Guaidó if, as everyone expects, Maduro digs in with the support of Russia and China.
It’s not a matter of much surprise that Britain’s Labour Party has avoided facing this issue square on. It has instead taken refuge in myths of Cold War era US “intervention”. It allows them to evade the obvious failure of a regime that promised “Socialism in the 21st Century” and which is unable to supply basic services to its people despite owning what are by some measures the world’s largest oil reserves. Yet the bankruptcy of this position, taken by John McDonnell among others, is clear, and has been dismissed by none other than the notorious far-right US Senator, Bernie Sanders.
Far from a US provocation, the Venezuelan crisis is domestic in origin. The Chavez-Maduro regime politicised the oil industry, failed to keep control of law and order, and rather than improving the conditions of the poor, made them far worse. Food, medicines and basic sanitary products are often unavailable. Beset by mass demonstrations and sporadic military revolts, Caracas now relies on Russian and Chinese security assistance to keep itself in power.
The stage is now set for a stand-off between the democratically elected National Assembly and what Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, calls the “tyrant”. Maduro stays installed Caracas’s Miraflores palace, while his secret police operate from a post-modernist disused shopping centre converted into a warren of torture chambers known as the Helicóide.
The transfer of international recognition to the National Assembly is more than just symbolic. Pursued fully, it would mean that, in the view of the countries that recognise it, the Assembly will be the legitimate representative of the Venezuelan state abroad. Its appointees, not Maduro’s, will be recognised as diplomats. Property belonging to the Venezuelan state can be assigned to it, and not to Maduro’s government. Efforts are under way to transfer oil revenues to its control. Conversely, Maduro and his agents will no longer be, in the eyes of major world democracies and the international financial system at least, legitimate forces of order. They will have been converted into rebels using force to overthrow the legitimate government of Venezuela, as represented by the National Assembly.
This could begin to change the balance of power, but to stand a chance of bringing democracy back to Venezuela, further steps must be taken. What is needed is a diplomatic process to put pressure on the regime to acquiesce in free elections that will continue alongside what will it is hoped will continue to be peaceful popular opposition to Maduro, and the role of the United States will be crucial.
A wise US administration would stay in the shadows, and leave public leadership to Latin American countries, while providing diplomatic heft (in particular in dissuading Russia and China from provocation) and practical and organisational assistance to the regional anti-Maduro coalition. Such discretion would shield Venezuela’s democracy movement from the charges of American imperialism that Maduro has already begun to deploy and which are being enthusiastically if hypocritically relayed by pro-Russian satellite TV.
We don’t, however, have such a wise administration. This one, understaffed diplomatically, incapable of consistent action, with a president beholden to Moscow, and a counterproductive fondness for the theatrical may well squander the opportunity for a peaceful return to democracy in Venezuela. Among the risks facing the world in 2019 we may now have to add further deterioration. Descent into prolonged violence or even low-level civil war now looks all too possible.