The political crisis in Venezuela has reached a tragic peak with at least 29 people dying at the hands of security forces, and thousands more fleeing their homes in fear since 23 January. Alongside the growing violence Venezuela is facing humanitarian crisis. A UN Security Council meeting held on 26 January, expressed serious concern as all 30 million Venezuelans are affected by shortages of food, medicine and basic supplies, deterioration of health and education services, as well as basic infrastructure such as water and electricity.
The most recent spate of mass protests and violence broke out on 23 January 2019 and the number of deaths at the hands of Venezuelan regime forces has reached 29 since 25 January. However, reports suggest that the actual number is higher as it does not include around 12 victims who remain unidentified or dozens of others that have been shot or wounded.
The U.N Secretary General António Guterres Thursday called for a “transparent and independent” investigation of the protesters’ deaths.
The Maduro government has been condemned by the UN and the wider international community for repeated use of excessive force against protestors.
Thousands more fleeing adding to 3million
In August 2018 a BBC report stated that 7% of the population of Venezuela were fleeing for their lives as a result of the economic and political crisis, however UN figures suggest more than 10% of the population have now fled the country.
The UN has warned of a migration crisis due to the immense shortage of food and grave economic concerns for Venezuelans. A UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) report of November 2018 estimated that the number of refugees and migrants from Venezuela worldwide has now reached a shocking total of 3 million. Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean host an estimated 2.4 million of refugees and migrants from Venezuela, with Columbia hosting the highest number, a total of over 1 million. Eduardo Stein, UNHCR-IOM Joint Special Representative for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela said,
“Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have largely maintained a commendable open-door policy to refugees and migrants from Venezuela; however, their reception capacity is severely strained, requiring a more robust and immediate response from the international community if this generosity and solidarity are to continue,”
The response of Latin American countries is in stark contrast to those of the US. President Trump has continued to embolden anti-immigrant rhetoric in face of the crisis.
Background and Maduro issue
The current political crisis evolved after the death of socialist leader Hugo Chavez in March 2013. Chavez’s death marked the end of his 14-year long rule and his successor was his then vice-President Nicolás Maduro.
The Maduro presidency has been continuously marred by socioeconomic crisis due to high levels of violence, inflation and severe shortage of basic goods including food items. Signs of unrest were evident when in February and March 2014 protests broke out over poor security and quickly turned into anti-government protests, resulting in at least 28 deaths. The protests were followed by a severe drop in oil prices and furthermore political turmoil that included an Opposition Party win that was swiftly ended by Supreme court pressure, putting an end to hopes of a coalition government that would have had the authority to block Maduro’s legislation.
On 19 April 2017 a large protest was held in Caracas and other cities across Venezuela against Maduro’s government. The protest was dubbed “The Mother of all Marches” by organisers and saw an estimated 2.3 million to 6 million protestors in the streets. The march was met with police and security forces who fired tear gas and rubber bullets, while some protestors retaliated by throwing stones and firebombs.
At least two students and a member of the National Guard were killed in the clashes. Another spate of protests in 2017 saw a shocking 120 lives lost.
In May 2018, Maduro was declared winner of presidential elections. Amidst his win were calls of illegitimacy by the opposition, backed up by the international community including: the U.S, Canada, and the Lima Group (a consortium of Latin American and Caribbean states excluding Mexico – Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru. Guyana and Saint Lucia).
These states encouraged Maduro to step down as President in light of growing warning of a dictatorship and accusations of “absolute authoritarianism” by Venezuelan civil society. But in spite of growing international concern, Maduro was inaugurated for his second 6-year term in January 2019, sparking the latest spate of violence.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó is the elected leader of the opposition party. On 23 January he declared himself the interim president of Venezuela. The self-made declaration was recognised by the United States and some of its Latin American neighbours and could be recognised by the EU and the UK pending an ultimatum issued to President Maduro. Guaidó has the firm support of the US, who have warned Venezuela that any threats against US diplomats or against the Venezuelan opposition will be “met with a significant response”.
However, critics suggest that a US coup attempt or intervention is not the best solution to the current crisis. On 27 January a BBC report stated that in its battle against Maduro, the United States ‘has been trying to cripple the government’s ability to secure funds and run the country – with sanctions’.
The US placed sanctions on Venezuelan officials under Obama in 2014, but these were heightened under President Donald Trump, who has also threatened military invasion and discussed a coup.
The concern over the impact of US sanctions on Venezuela have been expressed by the United Nations. Former Special Rapporteur Alfred de Zayas criticised the US for engaging in “economic warfare” against Venezuela which he said is hurting the economy and killing Venezuelans. On his fact-finding mission to Venezuela at the end of 2017 he said he found that an overdependence on oil, poor governance and corruption had hit the economy hard, but that the “economic warfare” practices by the US, EU and Canada were significant factors in the crisis. In his report Mr de Zayas went on to say,
“The US sanctions are illegal under international law because they were not endorsed by the UN Security Council.”
“Modern-day economic sanctions and blockades are comparable with medieval sieges of towns.”
“Twenty-first century sanctions attempt to bring not just a town, but sovereign countries to their knees,”
UK and EU
The UK is taking a more measured stance than the US but has supported calls of the EU and the US for Maduro’s government to call elections, issuing him with an eight-day ultimatum to do so. They have also joined efforts to stop Maduro’s access to funds, in what appears to be a ‘threefold strategy’.
Sir Alan Duncan, the British minister for Europe and Americas echoed the British position by stating,
“Maduro is no longer the legitimate president of Venezuela,”
On 26 January, UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt wrote on Twitter,
“Juan Guaido is the right person to take Venezuela forward. If there are not fresh and fair elections announced within 8 days the UK will recognise him as interim President to take forward the political process towards democracy.”
The Venezuela crisis has also been a point of contention in UK domestic politics, with Jeremy Hunt taking a personal dig at opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has previously voiced support for Venezuela’s former President Hugo Chavez. Hunt said,
“If Maduro’s policies result in 82% of population in poverty there is just the tiniest clue what Corbyn’s policies might do to Britain…”
Maduro support and Response
At the other end of the spectrum Maduro does still have international support; Russia, China, Mexico and Turkey have all publicly backed Mr Maduro. At a UN Security Council meeting held on 26 January, Russia accused Washington of plotting a coup.
Venezuela has rejected the US-led ultimatum saying that it must be withdrawn. Venezuela’s foreign minister Jorge Arreaza responded,
“Where do you get that you have the power to establish a deadline or an ultimatum to a sovereign people? It’s almost childlike.”