Behind the stand-off in Venezuela

Behind the stand-off in Venezuela


The US President Donald Trump’s efforts at a regime change in Venezuela seems to have spun out of control and resulted in a bitter struggle between that country's President Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaido for power, between a failed leader still supported by parts of the army and die-hard leftists, and a young legislator propelled to the front by popular demonstrations. In this tussle the last thing that the Venezuelans would need was a helping hand and sympathy from Trump.

There is no sympathy either for President Maduro, successor to Hugo Chavez whose socialist regime, after promising much, had reduced to this once oil-rich country to complete ruin. Its currency is now in a mess and basic foods and drugs have totally vanished from shop shelves. More than three million people have fled the country, triggering a massive refugee crisis in neighbouring countries like Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil. The only solution, it has been argued, is an interim government under Guaidó, who as the head of the National Assembly has a legitimate claim to the presidency under the Venezuelan Constitution. This could lead to fresh presidential elections and a flood of emergency aid.

Meanwhile, anticipating such a rush of relief material, the country’s military has blocked a bridge on the border with Colombia to prevent humanitarian aid from pouring in. This comes as Guaido has stepped up his challenge to Maduro’s legitimacy and the opposition-dominated National Assembly had warned the military not to cross the ‘red line’ by blocking humanitarian aid from abroad. Guaido who had proclaimed himself as acting president said that nearly 300,000 people face death if aid is not delivered to them immediately. ‘You know there is a red line, you know well there is a limit and you know that food and medical supplies are that limit,’ Miguel Pizarro, a legislator had cautioned.

Maduro claims that this humanitarian aid is a precursor to a US-led invasion and he insisted that ‘no one will enter, not one invading soldier.’ Tankers and trucks have been positioned to block the bridge. Interestingly, the aid delivery is being coordinated by Guaido who claims the backing of 40 countries as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. As if to support Maduro’s charge of the US fomenting a coup in his country,Trump has not ruled out a military intervention. He was also the first to recognize Guiado as the legitimate ruler.

In desperation, Maduro has reached out to Pope Francis to initiate a dialogue to resolve the issue and the Pontiff has offered to help mediate an end to this conflict if both sides agreed. He has suggested that the two sides begin with making small concessions and work towards a more formal negotiation. ‘There need to be a will on both parts,’ said the Pontiff. To bolster such a positive measure nearly a dozen Latin American countries, the Organisation of American States, and over ten European Union members have come to the support of  Guaido, apart from the United States. On the other hand, the prime supporters of Maduro are Russia, China, Iran, Cuba and Turkey. That seems a nice line up of the rival power blocs, though not of like-minded allies.

For Trump, not used to the nuances of diplomacy or statecraft or the suggestion the Pope has made, Maduro is the failed standard-bearer of the scourge of socialism and a beached for the Russian and Chinese influence and he has not ruled out the military option to sort things out. Thus the prospect of proxy war could well spill out of that country and that sounds ominous for Canada, European Union and the other Latin American neighbours, especially those of  the Lima Group.

The latter’s meeting at Ottawa had specifically rejected any foreign military intervention and hoped for a nonviolent resolution of the crisis. 'This is a process led by the people of Venezuela in their very brave quest to return their country themselves to democracy in accordance with their own constitution,’ the Canadian foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, declared in a statement echoed by most Latin American and European supporters of Guaidó.

The motives are mixed in the rival camp, with China that has doled out huge loans to Venezuela keeping a low profile, perhaps hoping of cultivating a relationship with Guaidó, should he prevail. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with no such qualms, has embraced Maduro as a comrade against Western, and especially American, hegemony, with Russia a strongest supporter, channelling billions in aid and arms to Maduro. It has also been most vocal in warning the US to stay clear.

Caught in this big power play with American and Western interests pitted against an axis of Russia, Turkey and the like, the objective to give the long-suffering Venezuelans a chance to freely choose their government and start the arduous task of rebuilding their economy, and not to score a victory in an ideological struggle, seems a distant dream.

When Hugo Chavez first took office in January 1999, he vowed to blaze a Bolivarian trail for Venezuela’s long-forgotten poor. In his first post-election speech, he promised he would not rest while there were still children in the streets and families going hungry. ‘Today a new battle starts for the salvation of Venezuela’, he declared. And in the early years he won global accolades and a cult following for his crusade to help Venezuela’s poor. Social projects known as misiones brought healthcare and education to millions of disenfranchised citizens. ‘[Chávez] showed us there is a different and a better way of doing things: it’s called socialism, it’s called social justice,’ the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn famously said, in 2013.

But two decades after his rise to power, Venezuela was on its knees, and many who were once loyalists lost faith in the new dispensation.  ‘Before, I’d open my fridge and see ham, cheese, eggs, meat, chicken. These days there’s nothing but water – and sometimes we don’t even have that. It’s insanity – we never thought we’d be living like this,' said a protester.

Guaido himself seemed to have leapfrogged a whole generation of opposition leaders when he proclaimed himself interim president and offered a dramatic way out of the impasse. The rise of this young and fresh faced leader was cleverly orchestrated by a Harvard-educated economist, Leopoldo Lopez, a former mayor of Caracas, a descendent of the hero Simon Bolivar.

A polarising figure, described as arrogant, vindictive and power hungry, Lopez was awarded a 14-year prison sentence for inciting violence during the anti-government protests in 2014, and he was moved to house arrest and barred from speaking to the press and remains under close police watch.  He and his allies have tried to win over the Trump administration support and one of his aides had dinner with Trump recently. Hours later Trump tweeted a picture of his with Lopez’s aide and Vice president Mike Pence called for the immediate freeing of Lopez.  With such a line-up, the poor people of Venezuela seem to be in for a long drawn struggle.