What is one to make of Juan Guaidó’s self-acclamation as the legitimate president of Venezuela? Certainly it was audacious and daring. Guaidó put himself in personal jeopardy by assuming the presidential mantle based on the support of the National Assembly, where the opposition to Nicolás Maduro’s “Bolivarian socialist” presidency commands an overwhelming majority. Other recent opposition leaders are either in jail under trying conditions or under house arrest.
His auto-election was clearly a startling political act, attracting national attention and international approval from a broad swath of foreign governments, including Canada as a member of the Lima group of mostly democratic nations of the Americas. Support also came from the United States and leading European Union members, including France and Germany. Mexico, a Lima group member, has chosen neutrality under the newly elected administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
On the other hand Cuba, which has provided security personnel to prop up Maduro, has condemned Guaidó’s move. Predictably, so have Bolivia and Nicaragua, with “socialist” orientations similar to Maduro’s. Also on Maduro’s side are Russia and China, which support his regime with loans backed by Venezuela’s oil sales. This drawing of lines between world powers has perilously thrust Venezuela’s crisis into a higher orbit of international geopolitics.
Still, Guaido’s declaration bolstered a resistance to Maduro that seemed to have faltered as Venezuela’s social and economic situation continued to decline unchecked. His move was a strategic parry to break a deadlock, inject momentum into the opposition’s campaign against Maduro’s authoritarian regime and clear a way forward to a resolution of Venezuela’s political crisis.
Perhaps all that needs to be judged is whether his move was feckless or strategically effective. But ultimately if it is to succeed, his interim presidency must be founded on some legitimate constitutional claim on which to chart a future course. For the self-acclamation to become a founding moment, it needs a credible narrative that calls on the historical continuity of Venezuela’s democratic traditions.
Venezuela’s Winding Constitutional Path
The development of Venezuela’s constitution has never followed a strictly evolutionary path. It enjoyed some mid-20th-century stability and then careened erratically into disruptive experimentation after 1998. The date on which Venezuela’s democracy was founded is clear: January 23, 1958, when overwhelming opposition forced military ruler Marcos Pérez Jiménez to flee the country. The ouster of Pérez Jiménez opened the way to national elections of December 5, 1958, and the victory of the social democratic Acción Democrática (AD) led by Rómulo Betancourt.
For the following three decades, and through successive elections, power was transferred with some regularity between AD and its rival, the centre-right, Christian democrat–inspired Comité de Organización Polítical Electoral Independiente (COPEI). The first two decades of this period were characterized by rising national wealth from oil income, which accelerated after 1973 with the international boom in oil prices. During this era, Venezuela was considered a democratic – and economically successful – exception among Latin American nations, most of which were governed by military dictatorships.
When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), of which Venezuela was a founding member, lost its grip on world oil prices in 1982, the Venezuelan economy faltered. Petroleum exports were by far the largest source of Venezuelans’ income, and the oil price decline of more than 50 per cent had severe economic consequences for Venezuela. The Venezuelan government had launched major social spending and infrastructure programs which it found difficult to sustain in the face of the price drop. The relative hardship of the 1980s produced a deep disaffection with the two traditional governing parties and led to growing social unrest. This was the climate that led to the entry on the political scene of Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez who memorably asked, “What good is a democracy that doesn’t let you eat?”
The constitutional line of continuity becomes contorted with Chávez, whose radical constitutional changes favoured executive powers over judicial or legislative checks and balances. The very act which brought the soldier to public attention was unconstitutional by definition: an attempted coup he led on February 4, 1992. The attempt failed, and Chávez was jailed for two years. During the 1993 presidential election campaign Rafael Caldera, who had served a previous term as president under the COPEI banner, won support from poorer Venezuelans by calling for the coup leader’s release. After winning the election Caldera made good on his promise and freed Chávez, who then organized his own political movement, capitalizing on public frustration with mainstream political parties.
Chávez was elected president on December 6, 1998, and promptly called a consultative referendum to establish a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. What followed until his death in 2013 was a series of constitutional initiatives and reforms in electoral laws that served to concentrate the president’s powers and undermine the ability of opposition parties to challenge Chávez’s authority. Yet throughout this period, it can still be argued that Chávez’s regime enjoyed formal legitimacy since it adhered to a constitutional path. In this context, what is key for the current state of play in Venezuela is Chávez’s 1999 constitution, which did away with a bicameral Congress in favour of a single National Assembly. That body has endured until today. We will return shortly to this in further probing Guaidó’s claim to the presidency.
Chávez was challenged consistently in his early years in power, barely surviving an oil strike led by the senior managers of the state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), and winning a narrow majority in a recall referendum – a measure that was also part of the 1999 constitution. But with time, and particularly with the resumption of higher world oil prices, he was able to cement power through state spending and narrow the opposition’s manoeuvring room through, for example, increasing his control of the Supreme Court and the national election commission. The erosion of checks and balances in the Venezuelan system so discouraged the opposition that many parties refused to participate in elections in the early 2000s. But they returned to the field in the elections of 2006 and 2008, and although the results still massively favoured Chávez, opposition politicians maintained a space as official rivals to the Chávez regime.
The story of Chávez is much more than successful constitutional stratagems. Large expenditures that increased the poorest Venezuelans’ incomes through direct transfer payments were significant – and affordable during a period of high oil prices. They came not only from the state as such, but also were funded by the state oil company, to the point that in later years PDVSA drew down its own budget for maintenance, exploration and innovation. This would have serious consequences down the road.
Vital to Chávez’s power was the charismatic hold he had on many voters, especially among the country’s poorer sectors. In his 2015 novel Patria o muerte (Fatherland or Death), Venezuelan writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka captures the atmosphere at a rally in Chávez’s llanos, or prairie, home state of Barinas, at a time when it was known that he was being treated for cancer:
He was asking for his life … to keep struggling for the people. It was difficult to determine if he was making the most emotional and authentic confession of his existence or delivering a powerful election stump speech. Perhaps both … Everything he was saying appeared to be pulled from a detailed and rigorous program. Everything at the same time seemed to be utterly spontaneous … The people listening were deeply moved, tearful. What he was saying was the truth, an emotional truth, unblemished. That was charisma.1
While others were less impressed with Chávez’s oratorical skills (Spain’s King Juan Carlos famously interrupted him during the Ibero-American Summit in Chile in 2007 to ask “¿Por que no te callas?”, that is, “Why don’t you shut up?”), the chavista constitution worked when backed by the comandante’s charismatic glue. It became more vulnerable upon his death on March 5, 2013, and his replacement by the far less compelling and far less shrewd Nicolás Maduro.
The Maduro Regime and its Opponents
In establishing the basis of Juan Guaidó’s claim to the Venezuelan presidency, the result of the 2015 election for the National Assembly is pivotal. The opposition alliance won 109 seats with 56.2 per cent of the vote, compared to 55 seats with 40.9 per cent for the government. Voter turnout was 74.17 per cent. Maduro’s response to the government’s defeat prompted exceptionally devious detours in constitutional reform. He decided initially to strip the Assembly’s powers by giving them on an interim basis to the Supreme Court. He organized the election of a new constituent assembly, which was boycotted by the opposition, since the new body was intended to sideline the legitimately elected Assembly. And he banned opposition parties and leaders from participating in the 2018 presidential election. These measures were a clear attempt to circumvent the will of the majority of Venezuelan voters who had delivered a massive vote of nonconfidence in the regime.
All these circumstances now cohere to provide the basis for the constitutional argument in favour of Guaidó’s self-acclamation as president. Guaidó’s backers reference Chávez’s 1999 constitution to provide the grounds on which the claim is made. Article 233 obliges the National Assembly to name its leader as president where the president is wholly absent (“ausente en absoluta”) before the date of his swearing-in. Although it is clear that Maduro is not absent in any physical sense, he is in a constitutional sense, Guaidó’s supporters argue, since the Maduro-created constituent assembly that ordered the May 20, 2018, presidential election was in all respects illegitimate. By extension, so was the presidential election itself, boycotted by much of the country. The Maduro-appointed electoral commission reported that voter turnout was only 46 per cent. Of that total, Maduro won 68 per cent, against two opposition candidates who did not participate in the boycott and won 31 per cent between them. The low turnout, the opposition boycott and the eventual rejection of the results by the opposition candidates who did take part cast the presidential election into further disrepute. Ultimately, Guaidó claims, as Maduro, the victor of this unrepresentative ballot, stood on no well-constituted authority, the president-elect was clearly “absent” under the terms of the 1999 constitution.
Further support for Guaidó’s position is drawn from articles 333 and 350 of the constitution. Article 333 is a measure to plainly convey that this foundation document belongs to the people of Venezuela, not to its government. “Every citizen, invested with authority or not, has the duty to collaborate in the reestablishment of effective powers (efectiva vigéncia).” Article 350 is a broader statement of principle relating to the constitution’s support for human rights. Venezuelans “are not to recognize any regime, law or authority that contradicts democratic values, principles and guarantees or impinges upon human rights.”2
President Maduro is hardly going to buckle in the face of constitutional arguments. The country’s growing ungovernability, runaway inflation, shortages of basic foodstuffs and medicines and the flight from the country of millions of Venezuelans will undoubtedly be greater determinants of the Maduro regime’s future. It is also plain that constitutional niceties are easily cast aside in a brute struggle to preserve power. However, Guaidó’s assumed presidency is an important focal point for restoration of both effective government administration and a viable economy when Maduro eventually falters.
Maduro and his supporters have been unrelenting in their attacks on Guaidó, which are founded on their allegation that the congressman is a cat’s paw for “U.S. imperialism.” There is hardly a foot put wrong in Venezuela that is not blamed on this malign force, from the cancer that killed Chávez to the countrywide power failure in March this year. And so it is with Guaidó.
Guaidó is a 36-year-old industrial engineer from the coastal city of Vargas. He is a founding member of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), a party affiliated with the Socialist International, the umbrella association for world social democratic parties, including the British Labour Party and, until recently, Canada’s New Democratic Party. He was elected to the National Assembly as an alternate representative in 2010 and won a full seat in the pivotal election of 2015.
The way he is described by Maduro regime defenders is tendentious, to say the least. He is a “the product of more than a decade of assiduous grooming by the U.S. government’s elite regime-change factories.”3 Among his offences was that he was a student in the governance and political management program at George Washington University in Washington, DC. He is also criticized for exercising the right to take part in street protests against the Chávez regime, including opposition to the government’s forced closure of the independently owned television station RC (Radio Caracas) TV.
Among his other offences is being closely associated with the Voluntad Popular leader Leopoldo López, who is being held by the regime under house arrest. López was using his base as an elected mayor of a Caracas municipality to oppose the Maduro regime. (Voluntad Popular was the leading party in the Mesa de Unidad Democrática, or Roundtable for Democracy, the coalition that won the 2015 National Assembly elections). Among López’s suspect connections to the U.S. “regime change factory” are his having been educated at Princeton University and his involvement in National Endowment for Democracy (NED) programs. The NED is a U.S. Congress–funded agency that since 1983 has been involved in the promotion of democracy worldwide, part of the U.S. government’s “soft power” diplomacy under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Key in the narrative against Guaidó’s claim to the presidency is that a primary motive for opposition to Maduro is the desire of U.S.-based oil companies to take over Venezuela’s petroleum resources. That Venezuela ran a successful state-run oil company, PDVSA, without foreign interference from the late 1970s through to the early Chávez years rather contradicts the view that U.S. multinationals cannot abide state ownership. It is notable, as mentioned above, that PDVSA management sought to protect this national asset from the predations of the Chávez regime, which seriously damaged its profitability and ability to operate in the interests of its supposed owners, the Venezuelan people. It could very well be that PDVSA may need to work with private capital to restore its economic integrity in the future. But despite the vast petroleum resources that Venezuela possesses, it will face a long and difficult adjustment in a world in which international efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are major factors affecting the industry worldwide. Venezuela’s oil assets, large quantities of which are similar to the heavy oils and oil sands of Alberta, would not be first among the properties sought by international investors.
The assertions of the Maduro regime’s defenders that the country’s economic woes can primarily be laid at the feet of U.S. sanctions do not bear the least scrutiny. Sanctions starting under the Obama administration were primarily aimed at restricting the travel of individuals associated with rights violations and crimes and freezing their assets. The sanctions with greater economic impact, those that force U.S. refiners to refuse Venezuelan shipments, are of recent vintage.
Venezuela’s economy had been suffering for far longer than the imposition of sanctions, and most particularly since the crash of world oil prices in 2015. From 2015 until now, Venezuela’s gross domestic product shrank by approximately 40 per cent, from US$554.2 billion to US$331.0 billion. The fall in the value of the bolivar, the local currency, qualifies as hyperinflation, rising from 3,994 per cent in 2014 to 15,000 per cent in 2018.4
The huge loss of income has put deeper stress on an economy that was already hampered, among other things, by domestic price controls, rationing, shortages for important consumer products and a multilevel system of exchange rates that was encouraging capital flight and discouraging investment. All of these measures were introduced over time to mitigate the impact of both public and private spending, domestically and internationally, that exceeded even the once very lucrative oil industry’s ability to generate income. The spending spree that accelerated under Chávez had the corollary of reducing rates of domestic investment, which in turn lowered Venezuela’s ability to generate non-oil domestic income. Rising impoverishment has led to an exodus of an estimated three million people from Venezuela, whose population is currently estimated at 32.8 million.
The path forward in Venezuela is confoundingly uncertain. The level of public opposition manifest in the huge demonstrations against the regime has not resulted in any concessions by Maduro’s so far adamant regime. But as of this writing, these demonstrations still appear to have given Guaidó a degree of protection from Maduro’s security apparatus, although his advisers have not been spared. It has been claimed that there are several hundred political prisoners; Maduro’s recently arrested chief of staff has now joined them.
The international support for Guaidó does put a spotlight on any repressive move contemplated against him, although how the international community might react remains uncertain. Despite less-than-veiled references to possible military intervention by the United States, the perils of such a move in a country as large and deeply politically polarized as Venezuela should deter any folly of that nature. Venezuela is not Grenada or Panama – Libya may be a more pertinent example.
What largely peaceful transitions of power have shown us in exemplary cases, such as South Africa, Brazil, Chile, Poland or Spain, is that they must ultimately involve a controlled surrender by the occupants of power. There is yet little sign of this in Venezuela. But Guaidó’s assumption of the presidency, drawing on the authority of the National Assembly, the last remaining democratic institution in the country, provides a mechanism through which Maduro and his supporters can allow their morally bankrupt authority to be dissolved.