Those who follow global events could not have failed to notice the tragic spectacle unfolding in Venezuela. The Latin American country has been riven by an internal political turmoil recently. The ruling President Nicolas Maduro's hold on power has been in serious peril. A big segment of Venezuelan people has waged a street movement and are demanding that he resigns and cede power to the leader of the opposition, Juan Guaido. Maduro runs a socialist regime inherited from his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chavez.
Maduro has his bastion of support. He has so far been able to preserve the loyalty of the armed forces by bribing them with oil money, though the oil revenue has alarmingly plummeted recently. The Trump administration in the US has taken a rabidly hostile approach to Madura and is doing everything possible to undo him.
The recently employed US sanction has put a sever squeeze on the Maduro regime. Venezuela is critically dependent on US refineries for processing its high sulphur crude. This type of crude can only be processed in special refineries. India and African refineries can do the job but then the shipping cost becomes exorbitant.
A complex pathology of factors has cumulatively brought Venezuela to a dire state in recent years. At this juncture, there is an acute shortage of food and basic needs. The situation is so desperate that there is an exodus of people across border to neighbouring Colombia. On February 5, there was a gut-wrenching footage shown on BBC television of a young boy in his teens searching for crumbs of food to survive.
The country's economy, ruined by more than two decades of economic mismanagement has been the main driver of the current crisis. As the rising public discontent over his policies and the economic woes inflicted on the people began to threaten his survival in office, Maduro has used Venezuela's oil money to bribe the armed forces and buy their support. He also has some public support but the agitation against him appears to be of greater size and fury. Recognising the gravity of the situation, he has proposed a negotiated solution and holding an early election to bring stability. Whether this initiative is serious or a tactical ploy to defuse the crisis is not clear.
It is a familiar fact of global politics that when a serious problem develops in its neighbourhood, a big power, let alone a superpower, will not watch passively. It will carefully weigh its options to protect or promote its strategic interests. Historically, the US has been particularly sensitive about leftist regimes in Latin America. It has been wary about such regimes aligning themselves with powers in adversarial relations with US. Venezuela's main patrons are Russia and China. Those who have historical memories will know that in Venezuela, there are reverberations of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that had brought America and USSR to the brink of a nuclear war and apocalypse. With a leader of Trump's mercurial temperament, the portents are ominous. The Trump administration has affirmed that military options are not off the table. To back his warning the US has amassed 5,000 of its troops in Colombia.
It will be helpful to briefly review Venezuela's political history of recent decades to get a clearer perspective on the present crisis.
Venezuela enjoyed democratic politics for about over three decades from 1958. When the two parties that alternated in power, the Democratic Action Party and COPEI, lost popularity and Venezuela suffered economic decline with inflation surging over 30 percent. A socialist government led by the charismatic Hugo Chavez came to power. His ascent to power came on the wave of a popular movement in 1998. He mobilised support on a platform that promised to cure many of the country's problems and eliminate term limits for all elected offices. Chavez could now seek re-election. His United Socialist Party won over half the seats in parliament. After his death from cancer on March 5, 2014, his protégé Nicolas Maduro succeeded him by winning a controversial election.
Coming to the current power struggle between Maduro and the leader of the parliament, Juan Guaido, who has orchestrated a street movement and declared himself president, Venezuela has become a battleground for foreign powers. In the wake of a threat of military intervention by the US, Maduro has been railing against Trump. He said that the US “empire has conspired to get their hands on Venezuela's oil just like they did in Syria and Iraq.”
He appealed for support to the people of US so there isn't a new Vietnam, least of all here in the Americas. He has portrayed himself as an admirer of and sought close relations with America. “The US is so much bigger than Trump, so much bigger', he said.
It would seem that in Latin America, Maduro's position is weak. Fourteen Lima group nations have recognised Guaido along with Canada and EU nations like France, Germany, Britain and Spain. Their stance is clearly based on their assessment that Maduro is ruining the economy, misgoverning, defying majority sentiment, inflicting suffering on people and is bent on clinging to power at any cost.
Madura issued a threat that Guaido will be imprisoned. He apparently stopped short of fulfilling the threat over fears that such an action would precipitate an intervention by the US.
If the Trump administration intervenes militarily, it will be a step to the extreme. The consequences cannot be foreseen with any clarity. If on the domestic front Trump faces serious problems, for instance from the Mueller probe or the subpoena that the US prosecutors have recently issued on his inauguration team, he may think that it will serve as a convenient distraction.
Even though Russia has given rhetorical support to Madura, given that Venezuela is not in its vicinity, it may not do anything tangible.
Ziaus Shams Chowdhury is a former ambassador.