Harold Trinkunas: Venezuela Has One President, but Two Claim the Office

Photo by Edilzon Gamez / Getty Images.

Q&A with Harold Trinkunas, deputy director of FSI’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Written with Katy Gabel Chui.

Venezuela entered a new stage of political crisis Wednesday after the United States and other countries officially recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the president following mass protests and claims of election rigging by President Nicolás Maduro.

What is going on legally? Is there a constitutional crisis in Venezuela?

Legally, this can be traced back to the 2018 election that allowed Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to claim a second term in office. Held under unfair conditions and marred by fraud, the election was deemed illegitimate by the Venezuelan opposition, independent observers and over 50 foreign governments. This created an opening for the Venezuelan opposition to claim that President Maduro’s mandate expired at the end of his first term on January 10, 2019. Under the Venezuelan constitution, if the office of the presidency is vacant, the leader of the National Assembly (the legislature) becomes acting president and new elections are immediately convened. On January 23rd, Juan Guaidó, who holds the office of president of the National Assembly, declared that in accordance with the constitution, he was now acting president. This was immediately recognized by the United States and the governments of most major Latin American states with the exception of Mexico, Cuba and Bolivia.

So — does Venezuela have two presidents right now?

Venezuela has one president, but two individuals claim the office on constitutional and electoral grounds. It is not really possible to adjudicate these claims within the Venezuelan constitutional system because the supreme court has been stacked decisively in favor of President Maduro. In fact, with the exception of the national legislature, President Maduro and his political supporters control all other branches of government. It is for this reason that foreign governments acted in a coordinated fashion across the Western Hemisphere to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. This is meant to shock members of the Venezuelan government, particularly the military, into reconsidering their support for Maduro.

How did we get here?

Politically, this is a result of President Maduro’s fear of being held accountable. The president and his entourage are credibly linked to drug trafficking, corruption and human rights abuses. President Maduro’s policies have produced a catastrophic economic collapses, with a nearly 50% drop in GDP since 2013, a rise in poverty to nearly 90%, and an estimated 1 million percent annual inflation in 2018. Under these circumstances, Maduro could not win free and fair elections, as he learned when the Venezuelan opposition won a ⅔ majority in the 2015 legislative elections. Ever since, the Maduro regime has sidelined the legislature and relied on electoral fraud and violent repression of the opposition to remain in power. The United States, Canada, the European Union and key Latin American states have attempted to push the Maduro regime to restore democracy throughout this period, and in 2018 finally took the step of declaring President Maduro’s re-election invalid.

How does Trump recognizing Guaidó as president affect US relationships in Latin America?

Under normal circumstances, Latin American governments are zealous in defense of their sovereignty and generally advocate for noninterference in other countries domestic affairs. However, since the 1990s an exception has been made for preserving democracy in the region, which culminated in the OAS adoption of the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter (of which Venezuela is a signatory) that declared democracy as the only legitimate form of government for states in the Western Hemisphere.

In addition, the massive outflow of economic refugees from Venezuela to the rest of South America — the largest contemporary international displacement of people after the Syria crisis — has put pressure on regional governments to do something about the situation. The fact that so many Latin American countries acted at the same time as the United States to recognize Juan Guaidó as acting president is a sign that this action by the Trump administration will not negatively impact US relations with the region.

What about the impact on contested elections throughout the world?

This remains to be seen. Venezuela’s constitutional provisions on how to fill a vacant presidential seat create an opening in this country that may not be available in other cases. Nevertheless, the principle that coordinated international non-recognition of a government can be used to try to force change is likely to generate resistance, particularly from the rising number of authoritarian governments in the world. Venezuela is a particularly extreme case of government dysfunction, but President Maduro so far enjoys the backing of states such as Russia and China. They are likely to see this effort led by the Trump administration as a new addition to the Western playbook for fostering changes in government among their authoritarian partners and allies.

What is the media missing about this story so far?

The media has correctly noted that a key to what comes next is the reaction of the Venezuelan military, which has thus far remained loyal to the regime. But they don’t always note how heavily the incentives are stacked in favor of the military continuing to support Maduro. The senior military commanders are complicit in many of the regime’s crimes — corruption, human rights abuses, and drug trafficking — so they have good reason to avoid regime change. More junior officers are subject to close ideological monitoring and counterintelligence surveillance, both by the regime and its Cuban allies, so as to detect or dissuade possible coup plots.

In recent weeks, the opposition has tried to break down military support for the government by passing an amnesty law that immunizes members of the military that rebel against President Maduro from prosecution. Moreover, Guaidó himself has said that he does not intend to hold the military accountable for their support for Maduro. While it is distasteful to consider that this may mean impunity for many in the military that may otherwise be guilty of criminal acts, it is probably a necessary condition for splitting the armed forces away from their support for the Maduro regime.

Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies or Stanford University, both of which are nonpartisan institutions.