Venezuela’s two presidents, explained

Venezuela is currently the land of two presidents. One, Nicolás Maduro, was re-elected last May after a widely disputed election where several of his opponents were banned from standing for election. The second, Juan Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly, declared himself interim president of Venezuela in January based on the perceived illegitimacy of Maduro’s re-election.

Maduro, handpicked by the beloved previous Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, first came to power in 2013. Maduro, an adherent to the politics of the dominant United Socialist Party of Venezuela, has suffered from an administration plagued by the same problems of transparency and corruption present during Chavez’s tenure. He prosecutes his political opponents and bars them from running in elections. He is highly confrontational with neighbor nations, such as the United States, and uses propaganda and false information to incite the public.

Under Maduro’s leadership, Venezuela has suffered economically. Maduro continued Chavez’s policies of increased government control of the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PDVSA. His heavy regulation of PDVSA has added to the economic stagnation in the country. The political elites of Venezuela reap the oil company’s profits for personal gain and may even use it as a front for criminal activities, which prevents the public from accessing any benefits from the state-owned giant. The government’s mismanagement of the economy has led to a hyperinflation crisis. Prices rose 46,305 percent in 2018, and the inflation rate was predicted at more than one million percent. The economic hardship has caused a mass exodus from Venezuela. It is estimated that two million people have emigrated from the country in the past two years alone.

In response, President Maduro proposed what he called a “revolutionary” plan for economic recovery. This plan included a raise in minimum wage by 6,000 percent, dropping zeros from the current currency, the bolívar, and introducing the sovereign bolívar, a new measure of currency. However, the plan Maduro proposed did nothing to deal with the structural causes of Venezuela’s inflation, the country’s deficit, and people’s expectations. Venezuelan citizens and experts alike were not impressed, and many citizens were simply confused by the new system, not knowing how to calculate the new prices.

The political and economic tensions finally came to a head on 23 January 2019, when Juan Guaidó, the leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly, declared himself as interim president, citing articles 233 and 333 of the Venezuelan Constitution. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, Guaidó’s growing fan base, demanded that Maduro step down and leave the presidency.

While Maduro’s election was highly contested, Guaidó’s claims to the presidency are equally as tenuous. Guaidó’s argument is that Maduro’s illegitimate election technically means that there is no president at all. This then would allow the head of the Venezuelan National Assembly, himself in this case, to be sworn in as interim president. However, this is more of a loophole in the law than a factual reading of it, so Guaidó faces the challenge of having to convince the international community that he is indeed the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Some countries, including Ireland and Norway, have declined to back either Guaidó or Maduro, calling instead for fair elections to take place.  

So far, Guaidó’s declaration has gained the support of the United States, Canada, and many European nations, such as Spain, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Since gaining international recognition, Guaidó has opened the country to receive humanitarian aid, measures Maduro refused to accept when he held the presidency. Canada and Germany have both announced their intent to send monetary donations, and USAID has begun creating food pallets to send to Venezuela. Guaidó is gaining rapid support with the populace by promising aid, a stark contrast with the policies of Maduro, who insisted that humanitarian aid was a foreign scheme to topple Venezuela’s government. Though the Venezuelan Supreme Court enforced a travel ban on Guaidó, he left the country in early March, touring other Latin American countries and meeting with international supporters. Guaidó plans to return to Venezuela this month, risking arrest in the process.

Though Guaidó has gained international support, Maduro refused the ultimatum from European Union leaders to hold snap elections, and he has no intention of stepping down. He maintains that there is no crisis in Venezuela. Maduro has foreign allies as well, including Russia, China, and Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the EU and the U.S. of acting undemocratically, accusing the Western powers of using force to topple a democratic government for their own interests. Russia similarly issued a statement decrying American meddling in the situation, adding that the U.S. sanctions on Maduro are illegitimate.

Guaidó’s ascent to power is largely subjective. Although Maduro is still believed to have the support of a large percentage of the population, Guaidó has the support of the protestors. And even though Maduro still controls key parts of the government, like the military, there are growing numbers of defectors in his ranks. Maduro may have the advantage when it comes to entrenched control, but Guaidó has vast popular appeal. The deciding factor in this struggle for power will likely be which leader is perceived as more legitimate, and right now the tide is turning in favor of Guaidó.

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Author: Ananya Murthy

Ananya Murthy is a staff writer at The Compass. She is a freshman in the Elliott School of International Affairs interested in international economics and human rights issues. In addition to writing for the Compass, she is a member of the GW Mock Trial team and of University Singers.