What’s Going on in Venezuela, 101: An Explainer

It’s no secret that Venezuela has been in turmoil for years now, with the stakes climbing ever higher seemingly each day. As the editor of a magazine on Latin America, many people in the U.S. have asked me about the situation, displaying various levels of misinformation and confusion. It’s important to set the record straight, especially amid the Trump administration’s constant lies and one-sided analyses in the media.

For those who haven’t been able to follow the politics closely, here are five points to help clarify the situation:

  1. Context is Important

First, some context. When Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, he was immensely popular. It was the first time that many working-class Venezuelans felt heard. Under his form of governance, often called chavismo, President Chávez oversaw a number of key programs that improved the lives of millions of Venezuelans. As part of the Bolivarian Revolution, he oversaw a rewriting of the constitution and redistributed profits from the oil industry to poorer Venezuelans, who had long suffered under the leadership of an elite oligarchy. While the price of oil stayed high, this strategy worked well. Chávez won multiple elections that observers, famously including Jimmy Carter, deemed free and fair. Of course, the elites who lost some of their political cache and power under Chávez were not happy, nor were powers in the Global North like the United States. Chávez’s brash style made no secret of his antipathy towards the countries that had historically exploited Venezuela, and some of his policies would limit foreign involvement and investment in the country’s lucrative oil stores.

Graft, something that has plagued many governments regardless of political party, became a problem under Chavismo, and with the prices of oil faltering, there was less money to actually fund the programs that had benefitted ordinary Venezuelans. Though Chávez had made some moves to rectify Venezuela’s dependence on a single commodity, it was a challenge that no leader of Venezuela had ever managed to effectively address. As the economy worsened, Chávez failed to put measures into place that would effectively stave off crisis, the worst of which came after Chávez’s death from cancer in 2013.

Enter Maduro, Chávez’s handpicked successor with little of Chávez’s charisma or savvy. Maduro inherited an economic disaster that was getting worse by the moment, and his stubbornness and denial of the crisis, and refusal to make logical choices like adjusting currency rates, only made things more dire. With chavismo no longer able to make good on many of its promises, party leadership resorted to increasingly undemocratic tactics to tighten its grip on power.

With chavismo no longer able to make good on many of its promises, party leadership resorted to increasingly undemocratic tactics to tighten its grip on power.

This meant things like stacking the courts, banning people from running in elections, cracking down on repression through militarized policing strategies, and eventually, electoral fraud. After the opposition won a majority in the National Assembly in 2015 to the opposition, in 2017 the government temporarily shut it down, and then created a Constituent Assembly stacked with government supporters to again rewrite the constitution. Soon any positive legacy from chavismo appeared to have gone down the toilet, a tragic outcome for anyone invested in the idea of creating a more equal society for all.

On Tuesday, the world awoke to news that opposition leader Leopoldo López had broken out of house arrest, Juan Guaidó, the head of Congress who proclaimed himself as president on January 23, and members of the military, who had defected, were gathering at the Carlota military base in eastern Caracas. Guaidó made a speech, saying that today was the day the Maduro government would go down. But he was wrong. The opposition had miscalculated, again. There was not enough military support to overthrow the government. Guaidó has since called for more protests in favor of ousting Maduro, and has not discounted a joint Venezuela-U.S. military option. As the dust settles, the next steps are unknown.

2. Guaidó Was Not Elected

Nicolás Maduro was elected to a second term as president in May 2018. He ran against Henri Falcón, a former Chavista and moderate opposition candidate. The more radical sectors of the opposition decided to boycott the election rather than supporting Falcón, because they believed the vote would be fraudulent and did not want to legitimate it. Also, their preferred candidates, Henrique Capriles, who almost beat Maduro in the 2013 elections, and Leopoldo López of the radical Popular Will party, had been barred from running. López was one of the principal conveners of the 2014 guarimba protests, and was sentenced to over 13 years in prison for arson, conspiracy, and public incitement of violence, according to the government. López’s U.S. education, movie star good looks, and status as a political prisoner have made him an international celebrity. What’s not to like?

Leopoldo López in 2014 with his wife Lillian Tintori, flanked by supporters (Flickr)

Well, a lot of things, it turns out. The ideology of Popular Will isn’t necessarily so extreme — perhaps comparable to the more centrist, elite-driven sector of the Democratic Party — but their tactics to overthrow the government have been consistently hardline. In an increasingly authoritarian environment, more Venezuelans have rallied behind turning to more radical ways to oust the government. But López and his mentors have been plotting to do so since the early days of the Hugo Chávez government. Though he’s made claims to the contrary, it’s clear that López was involved in a 2002 coup attempt against then-president Chávez. During this time, López was arrested for attempted kidnapping, but was pardoned along with other coup plotters at the time.

Juan Guaidó, who comes from the same party as López, came to the fore as a relative new figure in the opposition. But this week, López’s role in the Venezuelan opposition has reached renewed significance since he escaped house arrest early on April 30 — allegedly with the participation of some dissident military police — and has sought refuge in the Spanish embassy in Caracas. A warrant is currently out for his arrest. He’s given a few speeches from the embassy in the last few days that indicate his role in trying to overthrow the government is far from over.

Though it may seem obvious to anyone following Latin America, plenty of people seem to think Juan Guaidó ran against Nicolás Maduro in free elections. Say it loud for the people in the back: that is not true. After the opposition boycotted the 2018 elections, Maduro was inaugurated in early January 2019. A few weeks later, Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president. He legitimated this action based on an interpretation of the constitution that says, if the seat of the president is vacant, then the National Assembly can choose one. But could the seat in fact be claimed as empty, if Maduro had won the elections, however illegitimate they were? It’s a question Venezuelans are debating fiercely.

But most of the international community has dedicated little space to this debate. More than 50 countries have come out in support of Guaidó since his declaration in January. Support or opposition to Guaidó has largely fallen along geopolitical lines, while Mexico, Uruguay, and some Caribbean countries have remained neutral, advocating for more dialogue between the opposition and government. Such dialogue has faltered in previous rounds.

3. The People of Venezuela are Suffering

Amid this political power struggle, Venezuelans are suffering. Medicine and medical care is severely lacking. People are losing weight. Many, if they can, are leaving, though exact numbers have varied immensely. Economically, while a few years ago there was a lack of basic products on the shelves, today those products are available — but due to massive inflation, bolivares are too useless in value to buy any of it.

Venezuelan migrants sleep on the street in Cucuta, Colombia (Wikimedia Commons)

For many working class Venezuelans, a sense of desgate, a word conveying disillusionment, exhaustion, and disgust has set in. They see the Maduro regime as abandoning them, but the opposition as opportunists, and not very good at achieving their ends to boot. As a schoolteacher said in January, quoted in NACLA, “There is no one to believe in now… we want a change, but we don’t know with whom.” Hundreds have been killed in protests.

4. We Must Unequivocally Denounce Military and Foreign Intervention

While the status quo is clearly untenable, there are ample indications that the opposition is not focused on the interests of the working class.

While the status quo is clearly untenable, there are ample indications that the opposition is not focused on the interests of the working class.

For one, the they have wanted chavismo out since Day 1, even when it was helping working people. Second, the coup’s association with Washington is wholly alarming. Since 2017, members of the Trump administration have made multiple statements both implicitly and explicitly supporting a military intervention in Venezuela. In a region that has repeatedly suffered at the hands of U.S. policy, this is a clear red flag. Yet Guaidó seems wholly unconcerned with the association, much less the current administration.

It should go without saying that the U.S. cares little about the country’s humanitarian crisis or its democracy. Books have been written on the topic. As an example, we could look to the recent example of the United States supporting a coup in Honduras in 2009, turning a blind eye to its recent fraudulent and illegal elections, and trying to build a wall to keep out its citizens who are fleeing.

While portraying itself as a generous benefactor to Venezuela, the U.S. government has also tightened sanctions that will surely increase hardship among ordinary Venezuelans. A month after passing expanded sanctions against the oil sector, in late February the U.S. attempted a delivery of humanitarian aid to the Venezuela-Colombia border. When Maduro rejected the aid, the U.S. and the opposition were able to portray the Venezuelan government as unrepentantly evil. In fact, the UN has been offering assistance to Venezuela for years, and many international NGOs have expressed concern over the politicization of aid delivery.

Meanwhile, Guaidó’s actual policy proposals have been sparse, but indicate a return to politics-as-usual before the Chávez years. That means export-oriented, neoliberal economic development, following a model of resource exploitation that would likely continue Venezuela’s dependence on oil. It could also accept loans from international lending institutions, who typically make promoting austerity policies a condition of receiving the funds.

Also, the fact that Guaidó and the opposition have been time and again unable to rally enough support from the military is telling. We mustn’t discount the fact that military officers may not be defecting because they fear reprisal and receive favors under the current government, but it could also be because they too don’t buy what the opposition is selling.

We mustn’t discount the fact that military officers may not be defecting because they fear reprisal and receive favors under the current government, but it could also be because they too don’t buy what the opposition is selling.

Overthrow Maduro, but then what? This lack of clarity has stymied the opposition for nearly two decades.

5. The Path Forward is Unclear

With Maduro refusing to cede ground, López in the Spanish Embassy, Guaidó calling for renewed protests, and concerning statements coming of the State Department, the odds of any kind of democratic, negotiated power settlement — or nonviolent end to the crisis at all — appear nil to none.

As all of this goes on, the Venezuelan population continues to suffer. But we must be skeptical of any politicization of that suffering, and keep our eyes open to the hypocrisies of our own government in condoning violent action in Venezuela. Our focus should be to denounce strategies that could increase suffering in Venezuela, and stand in solidarity with those fighting for civil, economic, and human rights.


Laura Weiss is Managing Editor of NACLA Report on the Americas. She holds a Masters’ degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from New York University.

Note: This article is immensely indebted to contributions by scholars of Venezuela whose work I have read and/or edited over the years, especially by Drs. Alejandro Velasco, Rebecca Hanson, Gabriel Hetland, Julia Buxton, David Smilde, and Miguel Tinker Salas. For more in-depth takes on the current crisis, please read their work.

(This piece does not reflect the views of NACLA).