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Venezuela: A country in abeyance

The downward spiral of political dissatisfaction, hyperinflation, malnutrition and violence has been gripping the South American country for years and is turning ever faster. The power struggle between Nicolás Maduro, whose presidency is questioned from a constitutional point of view, and the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, who has declared himself interim president, continues to escalate and seems unresolvable for the foreseeable future. How the situation will develop in the coming weeks and months is hardly foreseeable.

The background of the conflict

Venezuela is the most oil-rich country in the world. This wealth long provided the country with a comfortable economic situation and made Venezuela one of the most stable countries in South America. Despite the enormous profits in the 1970s, Venezuela has never managed to diversify its economy and become less dependent on oil.  The combination of high foreign debt and falling oil prices from 1983 onwards has led to an economic and currency crisis. As recently as 2014, oil revenues accounted for 96% of Venezuela's national budget.

The strong dependence on the oil price thus also led indirectly to the collapse of imports and social programs, the framework established to distribute the profits from the oil business. This in turn led to a now extreme plight of the population, as a result of which more than three million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years. This figure is expected to rise to five million until the end of the year.

The economic situation, for which many blame the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro and his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chavéz, has been further weakened since January because of the open conflict between the opposition and the government. Juan Guaidó, opposition leader and president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, declared himself interim president on 23 January, just two weeks after Maduro's re-swearing-in. The National Assembly had previously declared Maduro's re-election illegitimate.

Last year's presidential election was neither democratic nor legal, according to the opposition, many observers and states. The election had been brought forward to take advantage of the unrest in the opposition. In addition, some of the most promising opponents were either excluded from the candidacy, imprisoned or fled the country. For these reasons, large parts of the opposition had boycotted the election.

In his declaration of 23 January, Guaidó refers to Articles 233 and 333 of the Venezuelan constitution; because Maduro's election was invalid, the office of president was also vacant and the president of the National Assembly took over the office on a transitional basis.

Current Developments

While the USA, several Latin American and EU states recognize Juan Guaidó as interim president, Russia, China, Turkey and Iran, among others, support Nicolás Maduro's presidency. The Venezuelan military also continues to support Maduro.

In the days that followed, the situation in the country deteriorated further. While the USA imposed sanctions against the state-owned oil company, Maduro imposed an exit ban on Guaidó and had his bank accounts frozen. At the same time, Maduro blocked aid deliveries at the borders.

Despite the travel ban, Guaidó travelled to Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Ecuador. There he met with US Vice President Mike Pence and other heads of state to promote support and humanitarian aid. Despite the threat of arrest, Guaidó returned to Venezuela on 4 March, escorted by foreign ambassadors, to lead the protests against Nicolás Maduro's regime. Since then Guaidó has tried to find supporters within Venezuela. According to many, the decisive factors for the further course of the state crisis are the pressure coming from the citizens on the streets and the position of the military.

To increase public pressure, Guaidó has called for a general strike, but fewer people have joined than hoped. Officials, in particular, remain on Maduro's side, whether out of conviction or economic pressure.

This also applies to the majority of the military. Guaidó has indeed succeeded in attracting some military forces to his side, and with the help of these soldiers it has been possible to free the opposition Leopoldo Lopez, who has been under arrest for years. However, according to experts of the Venezuelan armed forces, the Maduro regime has systematically restructured the military, which was already characterized by corruption. The classical hierarchical structure has been transformed into a network structure based on the self-administration of the local authorities. This makes a coup against Maduro extremely difficult.

It has recently become known that the government and opposition have met for talks in Cuba and Norway. These talks, however, were not successful.

Human rights violations

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation remains tense. For a long time Maduro refused to let aid into the country. Only since mid-April the International Red Cross has  been able to distribute relief supplies to the population. According to the United Nations, almost a quarter of the 30 million Venezuelans depend on urgent aid. In addition, 3.7 million people and at least 22 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished. According to Colombian sources, several hundred Venezuelans and several dozen Colombians were injured during the border blockades during conflicts on the Venezuelan-Colombian border.

According to Amnesty International, there are also arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial executions against opponents of the Maduro regime. At the end of January, hundreds of children and young people were arbitrarily arrested and partly tortured in several federal states, including the capital Caracas. At least six opponents of the regime had been executed by the special unit FAES.

Already in September 2018, several American states had appealed to the International Criminal Court and asked the prosecutor to investigate the situation in Venezuela since 2014. The accusations against the Venezuelan government are crimes against humanity committed on the territory of Venezuela.

Traveling to Venezuela

It is strongly recommended not to travel to the country, the German Federal Foreign Office shares this view. If travel is unavoidable, there are many things to consider. The Federal Foreign Office in particular advises to avoid public space. We are of course available to answer any questions you may have on the subject and on preventive protective measures.

Sources: BBC, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Tagesschau, Deutschlandfunk, Amnesty International, International Criminal Court, German Federal Foreign Office
Picture:DSC_0036 von Riccardo Vásquez (CC BY 2.0) (Picture was cropped)




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