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Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis, that stems from a contest for legitimacy between the government and opposition, has come to a head.

The new head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself interim President of Venezuela on 23 January, saying he would assume temporary executive power while fresh elections were organised.

Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro, responded by making a public statement from the presidential palace, claiming this was an attempted coup backed by the “gringo empire” and called for the armed forces – to resist it “at all costs”.

Mr Maduro, who has led the country since 2013, was only sworn in for his second six-year term on 11 January.

President Maduro ran as the candidate for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), founded by Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez, in elections held in May 2018. Internationally brokered talks between the opposition and government broke down in February 2018, when the government decided to go ahead with presidential elections without instigating any of the reforms of the electoral system the opposition had asked for.

The majority of the opposition parties then boycotted the poll, saying it would not be free and fair. President Maduro won the election with nearly 68% of the vote, with a turnout of only 46% of voters. The opposition candidates that did participate claimed there was widespread fraud. The EU, UK, US and the 14-member Lima Group all refused to recognize the results as legitimate.

Venezuela’s National Assembly has been controlled by opposition parties since December 2015, when they won the legislative elections by a landslide. However, the country’s Supreme Court, which is packed by government loyalists, blocked crucial pieces of legislation that the National Assembly had passed by declaring them unconstitutional. The Court also blocked the opposition’s attempt to call a recall presidential election.

In July 2017 a new body, the Constituent Assembly, which is full of government supporters, was elected in a disputed and widely condemned election. While the new Constituent Assembly was meant to re-write the Constitution, in August 2017, it assumed for itself legislative powers, effectively neutering the National Assembly.

The National Assembly never recognised this move by the Constituent Assembly, and it has continued to sit as a body and pass legislation, although in practice these laws are not enacted.

The National Assembly elected Juan Guaidó as the body’s President in the first week of January. Mr Guaidó claimed that President’s Maduro was an illegitimate “usurper”, and that he had the right under the Constitution to assume the country’s Presidency until fresh elections could be held. He also called for a day of nationwide protests on 23 January.

International reaction

Eleven members of the 14-nation Lima Group — Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru — issued a joint statement endorsing Guaidó as interim president. Mexico, which has maintained a principle of non-intervention under newly-elected President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, did not endorse the call.

US President Trump released a statement saying that he recognised Guaidó as the Interim President of Venezuela and that he would “continue to use the full weight of United States’ economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy”. He went on to encourage the US’s allies to recognise Mr Guaidó also.

The UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt released a statement saying: “it is clear that Nicolás Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela”, and “the United Kingdom believes Juan Guaidó is the right person to take Venezuela forward. We are supporting the US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina to make that happen”.

While not explicitly endorsing Mr Guaidó’s claim, the EU’s diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement that “the EU strongly calls for the start of an immediate political process leading to free and credible elections, in conformity with the Constitutional order.” The statement called for the full restoration of the National Assembly’s powers and asked for “the civil rights, freedom and safety of all members of the National Assembly, including its President, Juan Guaidó”, to be observed and fully respected.

Russia has condemned Mr Guaidó’s attempt to assume the Presidency as a move to “usurp power”. Russia strongly criticised countries that have supported this action, saying such moves violated international law and were a “direct path to bloodshed”, and further: “destructive outside interference, especially in the current extremely tense situation, is unacceptable”. Venezuela is one of Russia’s closest allies in the region, and it has lent the country billions of dollars. Russia maintains that “Maduro is the legitimate head of state”.

China has also condemned outside intervention in Venezuela. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said that all parties to the conflict should “remain rational and level-headed and seek a political resolution on the Venezuelan issue through peaceful dialogue within the framework of the Venezuelan Constitution.” She went on to say China “opposes external intervention in Venezuela. We hope that the international community will jointly create favourable conditions for this.” China has also invested heavily in Venezuela.

Protests and the role of the military

Months of mass protests against the Government occurred in 2014 and again in 2017. These eventually died out, in part because of a strong crackdown by the country’s security forces. As protests both in opposition to and in support of the government have broken out again, and President Maduro and his supporters have shown no signs that they are willing to cede power, the role of the armed forces and security services has once again come into focus.

The security forces have so far been loyal to President Maduro and his government. Mr Maduro has kept them on his side by regularly raising their wages. Senior figures from the military and security forces have been rewarded with senior positions in the government, including Cabinet positions and Governorships. The military controls important parts of the economy, including food imports and distribution. They effectively control the country’s borders and are reported to be profiting from the narcotics trade and other corrupt practices.

Over the last several years there have been isolated incidents of small-scale revolts in the security forces. Most recently, on 21 January twenty-seven members of Venezuela’s National Guard were reported to have been arrested after they allegedly revolted against the government.

On 23 January, President Maduro called on the military to maintain unity and discipline.

Juan Guaidó has said he would reach out to “all sectors” including the military to end the crisis and has hinted he would consider an amnesty for President Nicolás Maduro if he cedes power. Most commentators agree that it would be very difficult for any political grouping to maintain power without the support of the military.

Economic and social crisis

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report in November 2018 that 3.7 million people — 11.7 percent of the population — are malnourished. Caritas, a Catholic charity working in Venezuela, states that the average Venezuelan lost 10kg in weight in 2018.

Venezuela’s government blame food shortages on an “economic war” waged by the United States and its allies. Diosdado Cabello, President of the government-controlled National Constituent Assembly, said in October 2018: “I insist here there is no humanitarian crisis; there is a war on the country”, and “those who speak of humanitarian crisis are the ones who have created war against our country”.

The country’s economy remains in turmoil. To try and counter rampant hyperinflation the government launched a major currency overhaul in August 2018. Steps included removing five zeroes off newly printed banknotes. Government official figures submitted to the IMF (these were only submitted when the IMF threatened sanctions against Venezuela) calculated that in 2017 GDP fell nearly 16% and inflation was 860%. However, external organisations believe that these figures were worse.

Many Venezuelans have fled the country to escape the crisis. In November 2018 the United Nations announced that the number of refugees and migrants had reached 3 million.

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