What’s Ahead for Venezuela’s Crisis?

What’s Ahead for Venezuela’s Crisis?
Venezuelan commandos patrol the Antimano neighborhood of Caracas, Jan. 29, 2019 (AP photo by Rodrigo Abd).

There is no end in sight to the political and humanitarian crises that have overwhelmed Venezuela and spilled over into neighboring countries for the past several years. In fact, the protracted fight for control of the country has only meant additional suffering for its citizens, who are already living in the most dire conditions outside of a warzone in recent memory.

Even if the political stalemate were to be broken, there are no easy solutions for fixing the country’s economy, which was too dependent on oil and collapsed as global crude prices fell. U.S. sanctions and crumbling infrastructure due to mismanagement mean that oil production will not recover anytime soon. But President Nicolas Maduro has shown more interest in consolidating his grip on power than making needed structural changes. The result has been growing shortages of food and basic supplies, widespread power outages and alarming rates of malnutrition. The crisis has also decimated the country’s health care system, leaving Venezuela at the mercy of the coronavirus pandemic, which further exacerbated all of its challenges.

Former opposition leader Juan Guaido’s attempt to oust Maduro’s government in early 2019 with the backing of the United States ended up backfiring. U.S. support initially helped Guaido succeed in getting himself recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president by governments in the region and around the world. But Guaido and the opposition proved unable to seize power, hardening the Maduro regime’s resolve and ultimately resulting in an impasse. In December 2022, the opposition voted to end Guaido’s stint as de jure president, replacing him with a committee of three exiled opposition figures, who will take over the management of the country’s foreign assets. Now the opposition is faced with the perennial dilemma: participate in next year’s presidential election despite knowing it will not be free and fair, or boycott the ballot and condemn itself to irrelevance? A recent deal brokered by the U.S. that involves conditionally relaxing U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector in return for guarantees by the government on the conduct of the election offers some cause for hope, but its effectiveness still depends on the Maduro regime living up to its end of the bargain.

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In the past six years, the country’s internal crisis has spilled out across South America as millions of Venezuelans have now fled the country in search of food and jobs. The exodus has fueled xenophobia and even violence against Venezuelans seeking refuge in neighboring countries. It has also stretched the capacity of regional governments and humanitarian organizations as they attempt to provide aid to Venezuelans fanned out across the region. Although the coronavirus pandemic temporarily halted and even reversed the flow of refugees, it has since begun again, at a time when government resources around the region have been put under strain, first by the health crisis and now by the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine. As a result, thousands of Venezuelans every month are now heading north through the dangerous Darien Gap, under the mistaken belief they will be able to easily enter the U.S. and claim asylum.

WPR has covered Venezuela in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. What’s ahead for Venezuela’s opposition ahead of next year’s election? Will the U.S. continue to reengage with Maduro now that he seems to have weathered the multiple crises of the past five years? How will the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine affect the Maduro regime’s ability to satisfy its political base and remain unified? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Invading Guyana Is a Really, Really Bad Idea for Maduro

On Dec. 3, Venezuela held a controversial referendum to underscore its longstanding territorial claim to Guyana’s Essequibo region. But despite fears the referendum was an effort to provide popular legitimacy for the government to seize and annex Essequibo, there are plenty of reasons why a military operation to do so is highly unlikely.

Domestic Politics & Economy

Despite widespread support and recognition from the international community, Guaido’s efforts to catalyze a popular uprising against the Maduro regime fizzled, as did his attempts to bring security forces to his side. The sham elections for the National Assembly in December 2020 seemed to signal the end of any realistic possibility that his effort to dislodge Maduro will succeed. Now, having turned the page on the Guaido era, the opposition has set its sights on the presidential election in 2024, in the hopes it will offer another opportunity to publicly challenge the regime’s legitimacy.

U.S. Policy & International Implications

Washington’s backing of the Venezuelan opposition made the country a flashpoint in international relations, as well as in the United States’ domestic politics in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, costing Biden support among Latino voters in Florida and elsewhere. Biden has now pegged his policy on Venezuela’s presidential election, which must be held by next year—and could coincide with his own reelection campaign. Meanwhile, Venezuela has sought backing, and particularly economic support, from both Beijing and Moscow, creating a new arena for competition between the U.S. and its global rivals.

Regional Politics & Refugee Crisis

Even as battle lines have hardened within Venezuela, the country’s political crisis hasn’t spared the region. Neighboring governments largely supported the U.S. push to isolate Maduro. But the humanitarian conditions within Venezuela have fueled a refugee crisis that has consumed government resources and popular goodwill, both of which are in increasingly short supply since the outbreak of the pandemic. And the return of leftist presidents in Chile, Colombia and Brazil has frayed the regional consensus against engaging with the Maduro regime.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.

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