2019 Venezuelan Presidential Crisis

A crisis concerning who is the legitimate President of Venezuela has been underway since 10 January 2019, when the opposition-majority National Assembly declared that incumbent Nicolás Maduro's 2018 reelection was invalid and the body declared its president, Juan Guaidó, to be acting president of the nation. The process and results of the May 2018 Venezuelan presidential election were widely disputed. The National Assembly declared Maduro illegitimate on the day of his second inauguration, citing the 1999 Constitution of Venezuela enacted under Hugo Chávez, Maduro's predecessor; in response, the pro-Maduro Supreme Tribunal of Justice said the National Assembly's declaration was unconstitutional.

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2019 Venezuelan presidential crisis
Part of the crisis in Venezuela
Nicolás Maduro during his presidential inauguration (top), Juan Guaidó addressing a crowd (bottom)
Date10 January 2019 (2019-01-10) – ongoing
(1 month and 16 days)
Location
Caused by
MethodsProtests, support campaigns, foreign diplomatic pressure and sanctions
StatusOngoing
Parties to the civil conflict

A crisis concerning who is the legitimate President of Venezuela has been underway since 10 January 2019, when the opposition-majority National Assembly declared that incumbent Nicolás Maduro's 2018 reelection was invalid and the body declared its president, Juan Guaidó, to be acting president of the nation.

The process and results of the May 2018 Venezuelan presidential election were widely disputed.[1] The National Assembly declared Maduro illegitimate on the day of his second inauguration, citing the 1999 Constitution of Venezuela enacted under Hugo Chávez, Maduro's predecessor; in response, the pro-Maduro Supreme Tribunal of Justice said the National Assembly's declaration was unconstitutional.[2]

Mass demonstrations throughout Venezuela and the world occurred on 23 January when Guaidó called for Venezuelans to protest against Maduro.[4][5] Demonstrations in support of Maduro and Chavismo took place as well.[6] Special meetings in the Organization of American States (OAS) on 24 January and in the United Nations Security Council on 26 January were held but no consensus was reached. Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres called for dialogue.[7]

Maduro's government states that the crisis is a coup d'état led by the United States to topple him and control the country's oil reserves.[8][9][10] Guaidó denies the coup allegations, saying peaceful volunteers back his movement.[11]

Background

Since 2010, Venezuela has been suffering a socioeconomic crisis under Nicolás Maduro (and briefly under his predecessor, Hugo Chávez), as rampant crime, hyperinflation and shortages diminish the quality of life.[12][13][14][15][16] As a result of discontent with the government, the opposition was elected to hold the majority in the National Assembly for the first time since 1999 following the 2015 parliamentary election.[17] After the election, the lame duck National Assembly—consisting of Bolivarian officials—filled the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the highest court in Venezuela, with Maduro allies.[17][18] The tribunal stripped three opposition lawmakers of their National Assembly seats in early 2016, citing alleged "irregularities" in their elections, thereby preventing an opposition supermajority which would have been able to challenge President Maduro.[17]

In January 2016, the National Assembly of Venezuela declared a "health humanitarian crisis" given the "serious shortage of medicines, medical supplies and deterioration of humanitarian infrastructure", asking Maduro's government to "guarantee immediate access to the list of essential medicines that are basic and indispensable and that must be accessible at all times".[19]

The tribunal approved several actions by Maduro and granted him more powers in 2017.[17] As protests mounted against Maduro, he called for a constituent assembly that would draft a new constitution to replace the 1999 Venezuela Constitution created under Chávez.[20] Many countries considered these actions a bid by Maduro to stay in power indefinitely,[21] and over 40 countries stated that they would not recognize the National Constituent Assembly.[22][23] The Democratic Unity Roundtablethe opposition to the incumbent ruling partyboycotted the election, saying that the Constituent Assembly was "a trick to keep [the incumbent ruling party] in power".[24] Since the opposition did not participate in the election, the incumbent Great Patriotic Pole, dominated by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, won almost all seats in the assembly by default.[25][26][27] On 8 August 2017, the Constituent Assembly declared itself to be the government branch with supreme power in Venezuela, banning the opposition-led National Assembly from performing actions that would interfere with the assembly while continuing to pass measures in "support and solidarity" with President Maduro, effectively stripping the National Assembly of all its powers.[28]

Maduro disavowed the National Assembly in 2017;[29] as of 2018, some considered the National Assembly the only "legitimate" institution left in the country,[lower-alpha 1] and human rights organizations said there were no independent institutional checks on presidential power.[lower-alpha 2]

2018 election and calls for transitional government

In February 2018, Maduro called for presidential elections four months before the prescribed date.[41] He was declared the winner in May 2018 after multiple major opposition parties were banned from participating, among other irregularities; many said the elections were invalid.[42][43][44][45] Politicians both internally and internationally said Maduro was not legitimately elected,[46] and considered him an ineffective dictator.[47][48][49] In the months leading up to his 10 January 2019 inauguration, Maduro was pressured to step down by nations and bodies including the Lima Group (excluding Mexico), the United States, and the OAS; this pressure was increased after the new National Assembly of Venezuela was sworn in on 5 January 2019.[50][51][52]

Between the May 2018 presidential election and Maduro's inauguration, there were calls to establish a transitional government.[53][54][55] CEO of Venezuela Al Día, Manuel Corao, argued that Maduro was no longer the president and that "the tendencies in Venezuela represented in the National Assembly [wish to] designate a transitional government that fills the vacuum of power and liberates Venezuelans from Communist evil".[53] Former Venezuelan legislator Alexis Ortiz stated that "Castrochavism [...] rots in incompetence, corruption, and surrender of national sovereignty", calling on a transitional government to work on reconciliation, establish general elections, receive humanitarian assistance and protect civil liberties, among other requests.[54]

A November 2018 report by the International Crisis Group said that "[n]eighboring countries and other foreign powers have taken steps–including sanction–to achieve some kind of negotiated transition, which is still the best way out of the crisis".[55]

In December 2018, Guaidó had traveled to Washington D.C. and met with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, and then on 14 January 2019 to Colombia for a Lima Group meeting, in which Maduro's mandate was rejected.[56] According to an article in El País, the January Lima Group meeting and the stance taken by Canada's Chrystia Freeland were key.[56] El País describes Trump's election—coinciding with the election of conservative presidents in Colombia and Brazil, along with deteriorating conditions in Venezuela—as "a perfect storm", with decisions influenced by US vice-president Mike Pence, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security advisor John R. Bolton, and legislators Mario Díaz-Balart and Marco Rubio.[56] Venezuelans Carlos Vecchio, Julio Borges and Gustavo Tarre were consulted, and the Trump administration decision to back Guaidó formed on 22 January, according to El País.[56] Díaz-Balart said that the decision was the result of two years of planning.[56]

Justification for the challenge

A June 2018 video with United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Al Hussein discussing the crisis in Venezuela

The Venezuelan opposition bases its actions on the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution, specifically Articles 233, 333 and 350.[57] The first paragraph of Article 233 states: "The President of the Republic shall become permanently unavailable to serve by reason of any of the following events: death; resignation; removal from office by decision of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice; permanent physical or mental disability; ... abandonment of his position, duly declared by the National Assembly; and recall by popular vote."

Later paragraphs describe what to do in the event of a vacancy due to "permanent unavailability to serve", depending on when the vacancy occurs:

  • Prior to elected President's inauguration, "a new election ... shall be held within thirty consecutive days ... The President of the National Assembly shall take charge of the Presidency of the Republic".
  • During the first four years of President's six-year term, "a new election ... shall be held within thirty consecutive days ... The Executive Vice-President shall take charge of the Presidency of the Republic".
  • During the last two years of President's six-year term, "the Executive Vice-President shall take over the Presidency of the Republic until such term is completed".

Article 233 was invoked after death of Hugo Chávez, which took place soon after his inauguration, and extraordinary elections were called within thirty days. In 2019, the National Assembly invoked Article 233 due to abandonment of [President's] position, arguing that "de facto dictatorship" means no democratic leader.[58] Invoked by the National Assembly, Guaidó was declared interim president for thirty days until elections could be held; Diego A. Zambrano, an assistant professor of law at Stanford Law School, says that "Venezuelan lawyers disagree on the best reading of this provision. Some argue Guaidó can serve longer if the electoral process is scheduled within a reasonable time".[59] The National Assembly announced that it will designate a committee to appoint a new National Electoral Council, in anticipation of free elections.[60]

Article 333 calls for citizens to restore and enforce the Constitution if it is not followed. Article 350 calls for citizens to "disown any regime, legislation or authority that violates democratic values". The National Assembly argues that both the national and international community must unite behind a transitional government that will guarantee humanitarian aid, bring the restoration of Venezuela's rule of law, and will hold democratic elections.[61]

Opposition strategy

Referring to Maduro's presidency as an "usurpation", the National Assembly and the opposition have maintained a three-step position and a strategy through the crisis to restore democracy in the country:[62]

Translation

  1. Cessation of the usurpation
  2. Transitional government
  3. Free elections

Spanish

  1. Cese de la usurpación
  2. Gobierno de transición
  3. Elecciones libres

Events

Inauguration of Maduro

Signs of impending crisis showed when a Supreme Court Justice and Electoral Justice seen as close to Maduro defected to the United States just a few days before the 10 January 2019 second inauguration of Nicolás Maduro. The justice, Christian Zerpa [es], said that Nicolás Maduro was "incompetent" and "illegitimate".[50][51][63] Minutes after Maduro took the oath as president of Venezuela, the Organization of American States approved a resolution in a special session of its Permanent Council declaring Maduro's presidency illegitimate and urging new elections.[64] Maduro's election was supported by Turkey, Russia, China, and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA);[65][66] other small Caribbean nations reliant on economic assistance from the Maduro government (such as Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago) attended his inauguration.[67]

At the time of the inauguration, The Times reported that US intelligence had allegedly learned that Minister of Defense, Vladimir Padrino López, had requested that Maduro step down, threatening to resign if Maduro did not.[68] On 15 January 2019, Padrino López swore loyalty to Maduro, stating that members of the National Bolivarian Armed Forces of Venezuela (FANB) "are willing to die to defend that Constitution, those people, those institutions and you as supreme magistrate, president of Venezuela".[69][69]

Maduro's government stated that the positions against him were the "result of imperialism perpetrated by the United States and allies" that put Venezuela "at the centre of a world war".[70]

Public assembly

Juan Guaidó surrounded by members of the opposition during the public assembly on 11 January 2019

Juan Guaidó, the newly appointed President of the National Assembly of Venezuela, began motions to form a provisional government shortly after assuming his new role on 5 January 2019, stating that regardless if Maduro began his new term on the 10th, the country would not have a legitimately elected president.[71] On behalf of the National Assembly, he stated that the country had fallen into a de facto dictatorship and had no leader,[72] declaring that the nation faced a state of emergency.[58] He called for "soldiers who wear their uniforms with honor to step forward and enforce the Constitution", and asked "citizens for confidence, strength, and to accompany us on this path".[58]

Guaidó announced a public assembly, referred to as an open cabildo, on 11 January[73]—a rally in the streets of Caracas, where the National Assembly announced that Guaidó was assuming the role of the acting president under the Constitution of Venezuela and announcing plans to remove President Maduro.[74] Leaders of other political parties, trade unions, women, and the students of Venezuela were given a voice at the rally; other parties did not speak of a divide, but of what they saw as a failed Bolivarian Revolution that needed to end.[74]

Maduro's response was to call the opposition a group of "little boys", describing Guaidó as "immature". The Minister for Prison Services, Iris Varela, threatened that she had picked out a prison cell for Guaidó and asked him to be quick in naming his cabinet so she could prepare prison cells for them as well.[75]

National Assembly declares Guaidó interim president

Agreement approved by the National Assembly to declare the usurpation of the presidency by Nicolás Maduro on 15 January.

Following Guaidó's speech, the National Assembly released a press statement saying that Guaidó had assumed the role of acting president. A later statement clarified the position of Guaidó as "willing to assume command ... only possible with the help of Venezuelans".[76] The opposition did not consider this a coup d'état based on the acknowledged "illegitimacy" of Maduro by many governments, and the constitutional processes that the National Assembly said they were following,[77] specifically invoking Articles 233, 333, and 350 of the Constitution.[74] The president of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice of Venezuela in exile (based in Panama) wrote to Guaidó, requesting him to become acting president of Venezuela.[78]

On 15 January 2019, the National Assembly approved legislation to work with dozens of foreign countries to request that these nations freeze Maduro administration bank accounts.[79] Guaidó wrote a 15 January 2019 opinion piece in The Washington Post entitled "Maduro is a usurper. It’s time to restore democracy in Venezuela"; he outlined Venezuela's erosion of democracy and his reasoning for the need to replace Maduro on an interim basis according to Venezuela's constitution.[80]

Guaidó announced nationwide protests to be held on 23 January—the same day as the removal of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958—using a slogan chant of ¡Sí se puede!.[77][81] The National Assembly worked with a coalition (Frente Amplio Venezuela Libre) to create a plan for the demonstrations, organizing a unified national force.[82] On 11 January, plans to offer incentives for the armed forces to disavow Maduro were revealed.[83] Venezuelan political experts, like David Smilde from the Washington Office on Latin America, suggested that this action would enrage Maduro, who already called the National Assembly traitors for not attending his inauguration, and who might arrest or attack more of its members. A friend of Guaidó, in response, said that they were aware of the risks but believed it needed to be done to allow democracy to reappear in Venezuela.[77]

Luis Almagro (Secretary-General of the OAS) was the first to give official support to this action, tweeting "We welcome the assumption of Juan Guaidó as interim President of Venezuela in accordance with Article 233 of the Political Constitution. You have our support, that of the international community and of the people of Venezuela."[77] Later on that day, Brazil and Colombia gave their support to Guaidó as acting president of Venezuela.[84]

Detention of Guaidó and rebellion within the National Guard

Guaidó was detained on 13 January by the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN)[85] and released 45 minutes later.[86] The SEBIN agents who intercepted his car and took him into custody were fired.[87][88] The Information Minister, Jorge Rodríguez, said the agents did not have instructions and the arrest was orchestrated by Guaidó as a "media stunt" to gain popularity; BBC News correspondents said that it appeared to be a genuine ambush to send a message to the opposition.[87] Almagro condemned the arrest, which he called a "kidnapping", while Mike Pompeo, United States Secretary of State, referred to it as an "arbitrary detention".[89]

After his detention, Guaidó said that Rodríguez's admission that the SEBIN agents acted independently showed that the government had lost control of its security forces; he called Miraflores (the presidential house and office) "desperate".[87][89] In a later announcement, he declared himself acting president, his most direct claim to the position.[90]

Two journalists—Beatriz Adrián of Caracol Televisión and Osmary Hernández of CNN—were detained while on-air and covering the event.[91]

In early 2019, a group of Venezuelan ex-army and police officers in Peru announced support for Guaidó, disclaiming Maduro.[92][93] Multiple groups of similarly retired or displaced soldiers said that they would return to fight Maduro if needed.[94] It was also reported that though the top military swore allegiance to Maduro, many had spoken to exiled and defected soldiers to express their wish to not suppress any uprising that could oust Maduro, secretly supporting Guaidó.[95] The National Assembly offered amnesty for military defectors.[96]

Early on 21 January, at least 27 soldiers of the Venezuelan National Guard stationed near Miraflores Palace mutinied against Maduro. The Guardian reported that they kidnapped four security staff and stole weaponry from a post in Petare, and posted videos on social media promising the military would fight against the government. Rioting and arson took place in the area and tear gas was used on civilian protestors. After overnight fighting, the soldiers were taken by authorities.[97][98] Five were injured[99] and one person died in the mutiny: a civilian woman who was confused for a protester was killed by members of a colectivo.[100] The BBC compared the mutiny to the El Junquito raid a year earlier, which resulted in the death of rebel leader Óscar Pérez.[101]

Guaidó swears oath as interim president

23 January march in Caracas

On 23 January, Guaidó swore to serve as Interim President.[3] Smaller protests had been building prior to that day. On that morning, Guaidó tweeted, "The world's eyes are on our homeland today."[102][103] On that day, millions of Venezuelans[104] demonstrated across the country and world in support of Guaidó,[4][5] described as "a river of humanity",[105] with a few hundred supporting Maduro outside Miraflores.[6][106]

The opposition march was planned for a 10:00 a.m. start, but was delayed for 30 minutes due to rain.[107][108] At one end of the blocked street was a stage where Guaidó spoke and took an oath to serve as interim president,[109][110] swearing himself in.[111]

Before the protest began, the Venezuelan National Guard used tear gas on gathering crowds at other locations.[109] Another area of the capital was blocked off at Plaza Venezuela, a large main square, with armored vehicles and riot police on hand before protestors arrived.[102] Photographic reports showed that some protests grew violent, resulting in injuries to both protesters and security.[112] By the end of the day, at least 13 people were killed.[113] Michelle Bachelet of the United Nations expressed concern that so many had been killed and requested a UN investigation into the security forces' use of violence.[114]

Maduro's response

Maduro accused the US of backing a coup, and said he would cut ties with them.[115] He said Guaidó's actions were part of a "well-written script from Washington" to create a puppet state of the United States.[116]

In a 25 January statement, Maduro asked for dialogue with Guaidó, saying "if I have to go meet this boy in the Pico Humboldt at three in the morning I am going, [...] if I have to go naked, I am going, [I believe] that today, sooner rather than later, the way is open for a reasonable, sincere dialogue".[117] He stated he would not leave the presidential office, saying that he was elected in compliance with the Venezuelan constitution.[118] With the two giving speeches to supporters at the same time, Guaidó quickly replied to Maduro's call for dialogue, saying he would not initiate diplomatic talks with Maduro because he believed it would be a farce and fake diplomacy that couldn't achieve anything.[119]

On 31 January, Maduro sent a video appeal to the American people asking them not to convert Venezuela into another Vietnam.[120]

Guaidó appointments

On 27 January, Guaidó began to appoint individuals to serve as aides or diplomats. Carlos Vecchio was accredited by Pompeo as the Guaidó administration's diplomatic envoy to the US.[121] Gustavo Tarre was named Venezuela's Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States,[122] and Julio Borges was named to represent Venezuela in the Lima Group.[123] The National Assembly made more than a dozen[124][125] other diplomatic appointments, including Elisa Trotta Gamus to Argentina,[126][127] María Teresa Belandria to Brazil,[125] and Humberto Calderón Berti to Colombia.[128][129]

Humanitarian aid

Location of the humanitarian aid points outside of Venezuela
Las Tienditas International Bridge blocked by Maduro to prevent the entry of humanitarian aid to Venezuela
Venezuelan Dragoon 300s were deployed in Gran Sabana, near Pemon areas

Shortages in Venezuela have occurred since the presidency of Hugo Chávez, with the country experiencing a scarcity rate of 24.7% in 2007.[130] The scarcity rate decreased until 2012, when shortages became commonplace in the country.[130] In 2016, the National Assembly of Venezuela had declared a humanitarian crisis considering "serious shortage of medicines, medical supplies and deterioration of humanitarian infrastructure", asking Maduro's government to provide access to essential medicines and medical supplies.[19] In the years before the presidential crisis, the Maduro government denied several offers of aid, stating that there was not a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and that such claims were only used to justify foreign intervention.[131][132][133][134] Maduro's refusal of aid worsened the effects of Venezuela's crisis.[131][132][133][134]

Shortly before his second inauguration event, in November 2018, the Maduro government received $9.2 million from the UN that was to be designated for medical equipment and food supplies.[135] Concerns were raised that the UN funding would be lost to corruption in Maduro's government.[135] Following the presidential crisis, Maduro initially refused aid, stating that Venezuela is not a country of "beggars".[136]

On 2 February, Guaidó began to lead nationwide demonstrations demanding the entrance of humanitarian aid into Venezuela, with hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans protesting in support of Guaidó.[137][138] According to France 24, Guaidó has made bringing humanitarian aid to the "hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who could die if aid does not arrive" a priority, and a test of the military's allegiance.[139] He also requested aid from the United Nations.[140] Guaidó said Venezuela's neighbors, in a "global coalition to send aid to Venezuela", will help get humanitarian aid and medicine into the country; products will be shipped to neighboring ports and brought overland via convoys.[141]

In response to Guaidó's call for humanitarian assistance, Maduro prevented aid from entering from Venezuela.[139] The Tienditas Bridge on the Colombia–Venezuela border was blocked by the Venezuelan National Guard, using shipping containers and tanker truck.[142][143] The bridge had never been opened after it was completed in 2016, due to the Venezuela–Colombia migrant crisis,[144] and was previously closed with fences and concrete block.[145][146] Diosdado Cabello threatened that any planes that tried to bring aid into the country would be shot down.[147]

As the first trucks with aid, escorted by Colombian police, approached the blocked bridge on 7 February, human rights activists received them, and Venezuela's communications minister, Jorge Rodriguez said there was a plot between Colombia, the CIA and exiled Venezuelan politician Julio Borges to oust Maduro.[148] During a speech on 8 February, Maduro voiced his opinions on why he had denied international aid and after stating "With humanitarian aid they want to treat us like beggars ... in Venezuela we have the capacity to take care of our children and women. There is no humanitarian crisis here".[149] While Guaidó attempted to secure international aid, Maduro shipped over 100 tons of aid to Cuba following a tornado that devastated Havana.[150] Guaidó issued an 11-day ultimatum to the Venezuelan Armed Forces on 12 February, stating that humanitarian aid will enter Venezuela on 23 February and that the armed forces "will have to decide if it will be on the side of the Venezuelans and the Constitution or the usurper".[151]

On 20 February, Maduro mobilized armored vehicles to prevent people from entering Brazil in pursuit of humanitarian aid, with Dragoon 300 armoured fighting vehicles of the Armored Cavalry Squadron seen entering the Gran Sabana region.[152] Groups of indigenous Pemon peoples blocked the entry of seven military vehicles into Gran Sabana,[153] and members of armed forces loyal to Maduro fired upon them with live ammunition on 22 February.[153] Fifteen Pemon were injured, four seriously, and two Pemon were killed.[154][155] The injured were transferred to Brazil due to the shortage of medical supplies in Venezuela.[153] Following the crackdown, indigenous groups detained thirty-six soldiers and held them in the jungle.[156]

With what he declared was the help of the Venezuelan military,[157] Guaidó defied the restriction imposed by the Maduro administration on him leaving Venezuela, secretly crossed the border,[158] and showed up at the Venezuela Aid Live concert organized by Richard Branson in Cúcuta, Colombia on 22 February,[159] also to be present for the planned delivery of humanitarian aid.[157][160] Testing Maduro's authority, he was met by Colombian president Iván Duque,[159][161] Chilean president Sebastián Piñera,[162] Paraguayan president Mario Abdo Benítez,[163] and OAS Secretary General Almagro.[161]

23 February confrontations

Humanitarian aid for Venezuela sent by the United States to Colombia in February 2019

Guaidó and the National Assembly positioned 23 February 2019 as the day they planned to bring humanitarian aid into the country with the hope that denial of entry "would cause deep fissures in Maduro’s military structure", according to The Washington Post.[164] On that morning, trucks with humanitarian aid attempted to pass into Venezuela from Brazil and Colombia, opposed by Maduro's administration.[165][166] A Reuters report said that aid shipments from Brazil, Colombia, and Puerto Rico were prevented from entering Venezuela, or returned.[167]

At the Colombia–Venezuela border, the caravans were tear-gassed or shot at with rubber bullets by Venezuelan personnel as they crossed bridges.[168][169][164][170][171][172] Protesters near the caravans responded by throwing stones and molotov cocktails at Venezuelan authorities in order to gain entrance into Venezuela later in the day.[171][173] According to opposition leader Gaby Arellano, of the five trucks that attempted to enter Venezuela from Colombia, two were burned, two were stolen by Maduro loyalists and one returned to Colombia.[174] Amid the clashes on the Colombia–Venezuela border, Maduro's administration severed their diplomatic relations with Colombia;[175] however, Colombia maintains diplomatic relations with Guaidó's ambassador, Humberto Calderón Berti.[176][177] Foreign Minister Trujillo held Maduro responsible for any aggression against diplomatic personnel, and Almagro said that Maduro is not the legitimate president so cannot break diplomatic relations,[178] but Colombia ordered its diplomats to retire for their own safety.[179] National Assembly deputy Freddy Superlano was intoxicated in Cúcuta, reportedly poisoned; he was hospitalized, and his assistant died.[164] The opposition asked for an investigation, without making "claims on who the culprits were".[164]

Near the Brazil–Venezuela border, more than 2,000 indigenous people from Gran Sabana gathered to assist with the entrance of international aid.[180] Colectivos and the Venezuelan National Guard repressed demonstrations near Brazil leaving at least four dead and about 20 injured.[181][182] A ship originating from Puerto Rico attempted to deliver humanitarian aid via the port at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, but the vessel, carrying civilians, returned after the Bolivarian Navy of Venezuela threatened to "open fire" on it.[183]

By the end of the day, a preliminary report by the Organization of American States (OAS) stated there were more than 285 injured, and former governor Andrés Velásquez reported as many as 14 deaths in the clashes.[184] Romel Guzamana, a representative of the indigenous community in Gran Sabana, stated that at least 25 Pemon were killed in what NTN24 described as a "massacre" by Venezuelan troops.[185] According to the Miami Herald, Guaidó said the world "had 'been able to see with their own eyes' how Maduro had violated international law. 'The Geneva protocols clearly state that destroying humanitarian aid is a crime against humanity,' he said."[171] After a joint announcement with Almagro and Duque, where Guaidó asked that the international community continue to support "all options on the table",[186] he traveled from Cúcuta to Bogotá for a 24 February meeting with US vice president Mike Pence, followed by a meeting of the Lima Group.[187][186]

Continued tension

On 24–25 February, clashes continued on Venezuela's borders; there were Colombian border clashes between protestors and colectivos,[188] Venezuelan authorities fired upon protesters and Colombian border police in Colombian territory near the Simón Bolívar International Bridge,[189] and border clashes continued with Brazil.[190] Brazil strongly condemned the "illegitimate dictatorial regime of Nicolás Maduro" for the violent acts perpetrated on its border as well as the Colombian border.[191]

Amid continuing tension, and with the failure to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela, the Lima Group met on 25 January;[192] Mexico, Costa Rica, Guyana and Saint Lucia did not attend.[188] The group urged the International Criminal Court to pursue charges of crimes against humanity for the Maduro administration's use of violence against civilians and blockade of humanitarian aid.[188][193] US vice president Pence said US humanitarian aid would increase,[190] and said tougher new sanctions against Venezuela's "corrupt financial networks" would be coming.[194] He asked other group members to freeze any assets of PDVSA, and transfer them from Maduro to Guaidó's control.[190] He also announced new US sanctions against four Venezuelans state governors, who the US says had furthered the humanitarian crisis by participating in the blocking of aid;[190][195] the governors from Zulia, Apure, Vargas and Carabobo states would be blacklisted.[192] Pence did not rule out the use of US military force.[192]

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales critized Michelle Bachelet and the United Nations for not doing enough to help.[192] The European Union and Brazil announced strong opposition to military intervention,[196][197][198] and the Lima Group rejected the use of force.[188]

The US FAA warned pilots not to fly below 26,000 feet over Venezuela,[199] and US military officials said they had flown reconnaissance flights off the coast of Venezuela to gather classified intelligence about Maduro.[200]

Recognition, reactions, and public opinion

Nations recognizing presidential power:
  Venezuela
  Vocal neutrality
  No statement
  Support National Assembly
  Recognize Guaidó
  Recognize Maduro

As of February 2019, Guaidó is recognized as the interim president of Venezuela by more than 50 countries, "including the US and most Latin American and European countries".[201] Other countries are divided between a neutral position, support for the National Assembly in general without endorsing Guaidó, and support for Maduro's presidency. The United States was the first country to recognize Guaidó on 23 January;[198] US President Donald Trump quickly recognized him and US vice president Mike Pence sent support and solidarity as well.[202] AP News reported that "familiar geopolitical sides" had formed by 24 January, with Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and Cuba supporting Maduro, and the US, Canada, and most of Western Europe supporting Guaidó.[203][204]

Russia has been a vocal supporter of Maduro, as well as being a military and economic ally.[205] Domestic reactions in Russia have been mixed with some publications praising Russia's support of Maduro and its willingness to confront the US, and others criticizing economic aid to Venezuela which they deem an economic black hole.[205] Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered immediate support,[206] and according to Haaretz, pledged investments in Venezuela's economy as well.[207] China was quick to support Maduro,[208] but has taken a less vocal position since early February.[209]

The European Parliament recognized Guaidó as interim president.[210] The European Union unanimously recognized the National Assembly,[211] but Italy dissented on recognizing Guaidó.[212] The Organization of American States approved a resolution on 10 January 2019 "to not recognize the legitimacy of Nicolas Maduro's new term".[213] In a 24 January special OAS session, sixteen countries including the US recognized Guaidó as interim president, but they did not achieve the majority needed for a resolution.[214] The United Nations called for dialogue and deescalation of tension, but could not agree on any other path for resolving the crisis.[215] Twelve of the fourteen members of the Lima Group recognize Guaidó;[216] Mexico called for non-intervention in Venezuelan internal affairs,[217] and Uruguay supports Maduro, but calls for new elections.[218][219]

The Vatican has taken no side but calls for peace;[220] Pope Francis did not address Maduro by the title of "President" in a letter to him leaked to Corriere della Sera.[221][222][223]

Public opinion polls taken after 23 January show more than 80% of Venezuelans support Guaidó as interim president.[224][225][226]

Controversies

Censorship and media control

Internet and TV

Several sources reported that starting 11 January 2019, internet access to Wikipedia (in all languages) was blocked in Venezuela[227][228] after Guaidó's page on the Spanish Wikipedia was edited to show him as president.[229] The block mainly affected the users of the state-run CANTV, the national telecommunications company and largest provider of the country.[230] Several media outlets have suggested that Wikipedia directly or indirectly was taking sides with either group.[231][232][233]

NetBlocks showing blocks of Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube on 21 January 2019

Later on 21 January, the day of a National Guard mutiny in Cotiza, internet access to some social media like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube was reported blocked for CANTV users. The Venezuelan government denied it had engaged in blocking.[234] In the late evening of 22 January, it was reported that Twitter and Instagram were completely blocked in the country, possibly to suppress the organization of the protests happening the next day.[235]

During 23 January protests, widespread internet outages for CANTV users were reported, with Wikipedia,[236] Google Search, Facebook, Instagram, and many other social media platforms affected.[237] The widespread regional internet blackouts occurred again on 26 to 27 January.[238][239]

Several live streams of the National Assembly sessions and Guaidó's speeches have been disrupted for CANTV users, mainly affecting access to streaming platforms like Periscope, YouTube, and other Google services.[240][241][242][243][244]

Canal 24 Horas, a news channel owned by Chile's public broadcaster, Televisión Nacional, was removed from Venezuela's cable and satellite television operators by the state-run National Commission of Telecommunications (Conatel) on 24 January.[245] Conatel removed 24 Horas once again during the 23 February conflicts in the Venezuelan frontier, no reason was given.[246]

Since 22 January, Conatel has repeatedly advised against the promotion of violence and the disavowing of institutional authorities, according to the Law on Social Responsibility on Radio and Television imposed in 2004.[247] Some radio programs have been ordered off air, including Cesar Miguel Rondón's radio program, one of the most listened-to programs in the country. Other programs have been temporarily canceled or received censorship warnings, including a threat to close private television and radio stations if they recognize Guaidó as acting president or interim president of Venezuela.[248][249][250]

During the Venezuela Aid Live concert on 22 February, NatGeo and Antena 3 were removed from cable and satellite TV for broadcasting the concert.[251] Access to YouTube was also blocked for CANTV users during the concert.[252]

Aggression towards press personnel

Between 29 and 30 January, at least eleven press personnel were arrested.[253] On the evening of 29 January, four journalists were arrested by the Maduro government while reporting near the Miraflores presidential palace—Venezuelan journalists Ana Rodríguez of VPI TV and Maiker Yriarte of TV Venezuela, and Chilean journalists Rodrigo Pérez and Gonzalo Barahona of TVN Chile.[254] The two Venezuelan journalists were released; the Chilean journalists were deported.[255]

Two French journalists from French TV show, Quotidien, and their Venezuelan producer were detained for two days at El Helicoide on 30 January.[256][257][258] Three press workers of EFE were also arrested by SEBIN and DGCIM—a Colombian photographer, a Colombian companion, and a Spanish companion.[253]

Jorge Arreaza, Venezuelan Minister for Foreign Affairs, defended the detentions, stating that press workers were part "of the media operation against the country" that wanted "to create a media scandal" by not "complying with the minimum prerequisites required by Venezuelan law". Press organizations stated that they complied with the migration laws of Venezuela.[259] Maduro denied that journalists were detained by authorities.[260]

During the 23 January clashes, there were numerous reports of Venezuelan authorities and paramilitaries attacking press workers, including workers of the Associated Press, Ecos del Torbes, La Prensa de Lara, Telemundo, TVVenezuela, VIVOplay, VPItv and others.[261]

Jorge Ramos, who The Guardian described as "arguably the best-known journalist in the Spanish-speaking world", was detained along with his Univision crew members during an interview with Maduro on 25 February.[262] Univision equipment and materials were confiscated by Venezuelan authorities.[262] During the interview, Maduro denied that a humanitarian crisis existed in Venezuela, which prompted Ramos to show Maduro images of Venezuelan children eating from a garbage truck and asking again if a crisis existed.[262][263] After being released, Ramos stated that he and his group were held because this question bothered Maduro.[262] The Univision team was informed they would be deported, Maduro's Minister of Information Jorge Rodríguez described the incident as a "cheap show".[263]

Phishing

The website "Voluntarios X Venezuela" was promoted by Guaidó and the National Assembly to gather volunteers for humanitarian aid;[264] as of 16 February, Guaidó said 600,000 people had signed up.[265] Between 12 and 13 February, CANTV users that tried to access were redirected to a mirror site with a different URL address. The mirror site asked for personal information: names, ID, address and telephone numbers. The fake site also hosted other phishing websites with the aim of obtaining email addresses, usernames and passwords. All the phishing websites used the .ve domain controlled by Conatel. This manipulation was denounced as a technique to identify dissidents to the government.[266][267][268][269] Following the phishing incident, the official site was completely blocked for CANTV users on 16 February.[270]

Defections

Hugo Carvajal, the head of Venezuela's military intelligence for ten years during Hugo Chávez's presidency and "one of the government's most prominent figures",[271] publicly broke with Maduro and endorsed Guaidó as interim president.[272] Serving as a National Assembly deputy for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, The Wall Street Journal said the retired general is considered a pro-Maduro legislator.[272] In a video released online on 21 February,[271] he called for Venezuelan military forces to break ranks and to allow the entry of humanitarian aid to Venezuela.[272] Directed to soldiers he said, "we do not have the technical capacity to confront any enemy ... he who says otherwise lies."[272] Directed to Maduro, he said, "You have killed hundreds of young people in the streets for trying to claim the rights you stole. This without even counting the dead for lack of medicines and security."[271]

In an interview with The New York Times, Carvajal said Maduro was a "dictator with a corrupt inner circle that has engaged in drug trafficking and courted the militant group Hezbollah".[271] US investigators accused Carvajal as being one of those responsible for drug trafficking in Venezuela;[271] he said Maduro himself helped corrupt top government figures manage drug trafficking in Venezuela.[271] Carvajal also questioned the status of Venezuela's sovereignty, explaining that Cubans control the Maduro government.[273]

Other military

Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López declared the armed forces would not recognize Juan Guaidó
Venezuelan National Guardsmen deserting into Colombia

The Miami Herald reported that the Maduro regime feared a military uprising and defections, had made many arrests, and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López ordered a counterintelligence effort to locate conspiracists or possible defectors.[225] According to France 24, Maduro declared "military deserters who fled to Colombia have become mercenaries" as part of a US-backed coup.[274] CBS News reported that rank-and-file troops, who made about US$6 per month, were "hungry and pushed to a tipping point".[275]

Guaidó declared that the opposition had held secret meetings with military officials to discuss the Amnesty Law. An opposition representative stated that the meetings were focused on army officers, who were amenable to the idea and "expressed concern about the Trump administration's past threats of military intervention in Venezuela and [...] that the armed forces would be outgunned in any fight". Analysts warned that the meetings could potentially only win partial support and divide the military, which could lead to a civil war or coup.[94]

In February, the Venezuelan Air Force's head of strategic planning, divisional general Francisco Esteban Yánez Rodríguez, recognized Guaidó as interim president on 2 February 2019, stating: "Today, with patriotic and democratic pride, I inform you that I do not recognize the irritating and dictatorial authority of Mr. Nicolás Maduro and I recognize Deputy Juan Guaidó as the Interim President of Venezuela, for which I worthily place myself at your service". He stated that 90% of the armed forces would back Guaidó if needed.[276][277] Air Force general Víctor Romero Meléndez supported Guaidó and called upon the Armed Forces to "support the people and the constitution".[278] Retired air force major general Jorge Oropeza recognized Guaidó as interim president,[279] as did lieutenant colonel Andrés Eloy Volcán.[280] During an opposition protest in Barquisimeto, Lara state, officers of the Bolivarian National Police withdrew after they were asked by protesters to leave. One of the policemen said "I prefer to withdraw my men than to repress the people."[281][282] In San Cristóbal, Táchira state, National Guardsmen withdrew from a protest meeting point to allow the installation of a scaffold.[283] The next day, the police chief of Valera, Trujillo state, Raúl Eliezer Álvarez, and five other officers disavowed Maduro's government as a "narcodictator regime".[284] Carlos Guyon Celis, a former captain who participated in the first 1992 coup d'état attempt, expressed support for Juan Guaidó on the anniversary of the 4 February coup attempt, and called upon the Armed Forces to "cut the chains that oppress the people since 20 years".[285] Venepress published an alleged audio of an aviation officer who said that the Armed Forces are weakened and that officers would not defend Maduro.[286] The top Venezuelan military representative to the United States, Colonel José Luis Silva, recognized Guaidó as his president.[287] On 17 February, five military personnel and snipers were arrested by the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence in Ureña, Táchira state, after publishing a video in which they declared support for Guaidó.[288]

As of 26 February, since the border clashes on 23 February, Colombian Migration officials declared there have been 326 defections of military personnel and police,[289] including Army Major Hugo Parra Martínez,[290] frigate lieutenant Deivis Ramirez Sosa,[291] and a FAES official, William Castillo.[292] Three National Guardsmen drove an armoured vehicle through barricades on the border on 23 February, injuring a 24-year-old woman and a 16-year-old boy.[290]

Diplomatic

Following the 23 January events, some Venezuelan diplomats in the United States supported Guaidó; the majority returned to Venezuela on Maduro's orders.[293] Venezuela's ambassador in Iraq, Jonathan Velasco, recognized Guaidó, indicating that the National Assembly is the only government branch "associated with ethics, legitimacy and legality" and responsible for filling the "power vacuum created by the violation of the constitution".[294][295] The Consul general of Venezuela in Houston recognized Guaidó, saying "I am at your service and at your disposal to serve my country."[293] Although consular officers destroyed thousands of documents from the ambassador's office and both the administration and consular section, nine officials decided to stay.[296]

The top Venezuelan consular officer in Miami supported Guaidó, stating "it [follows] my democratic principles and values" and urging other diplomats to "embrace the Constitution" and join Guaidó in trying to force new elections.[297] Two consular officials in Chicago recognized Guaidó, saying they wanted to be "associated with democratic principles and values".[298]

Expulsion of European Parliament members

On 18 February, Maduro's government expelled a group of Members of the European Parliament that planned to meet Juan Guaidó. The foreign ministers of Spain, Josep Borrell, and of France, Jean-Yves Le Drian, condemned the expulsion of the parliamentarians.[299]

Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza defended the expulsions,[300] saying that the constitutional government of Venezuela "will not allow the European extreme right to disturb the peace and stability of the country with another of its gross interventionist actions" and added that "Venezuela must be respected."[301]

Foreign aid

NPR reported that critics say the offer of humanitarian aid by the United States is designed as a way to place pressure on Maduro and to increase dissent among the Venezuelan armed forces,[302] and that the US is using a similar tactic that Russia used in Ukraine, where 250 Russian trucks entered to deliver aid in 2014.[302] Colombia, and Venezuela's neighboring countries, "are the most interested in seeing aid brought in", according to CNN, to "help reduce the wave of Venezuelan refugees pouring across their borders."[303] Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Colombia's foreign minister, said that blocking aid was a crime that "would give even more reason ... to ask the International Criminal Court to investigate Maduro".[143]

The United Nations (UN) stated that "[v]ast numbers of Venezuelans are starving, deprived of essential medicines, and trying to survive in a situation that is spiraling downwards with no end in sight";[304] it recommended increased humanitarian funding for Venezuelans,[305] and cautioned not to politicize aid.[306] The UN said that "humanitarian action needs to be independent of political, military or other objectives",[306] and calls for a de-escalation of tension from both sides.[303]

The International Committee of the Red Cross "warned the United States about the risks of delivering humanitarian aid to Venezuela without the approval of security forces loyal to President Nicolas Maduro". It also said its ability to work in the current environment in Venezuela was limited" and that it could "not ... implement things that have a political tone”.[307] For the Red Cross, maintaining a neutral stance in political situations is most important;[303] the organization holds that, for aid to be effective, both sides of the conflict should come to agreement.[303] Having worked with local authorities inside Venezuela for a long time delivering relief,[146] in February 2019 the organization had talks with the Venezuelan Ministry of Health about increasing its budget.[307] Later in the month it doubled its Venezuela budget to 15.8 million euros (US$17.9 million).[308]

Military intervention

In early 2019, with Cuban and Russian-backed security forces in the country, potential United States military involvement was reported.[309] According to professor Erick Langer of Georgetown University, "Cuba and Russia have already intervened".[309]

Reuters reported that Russian mercenaries associated with the Wagner Group were in Venezuela to defend Maduro's government.[310] Professor Robert Ellis of the United States Army War College described 400 Wagner Group mercenaries provided by Russia as the "palace guard of Nicolás Maduro".[309] Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the deployment of Russian mercenaries, calling it "fake news".[311][312] A Cuban military presence of at least 15,000 personnel was in Venezuela in early 2018,[313] while estimates ranging from hundreds to thousands of Cuban security forces were reported in 2019.[309] Colombian guerrillas from National Liberation Army (ELN) have also vowed to defend Maduro, with ELN leaders in Cuba stating that they are drafting plans to provide military assistance to Maduro.[314] The Redes Foundation denounced in the Colombian Public Ministry that armed groups made up of National Liberation Army members and FARC dissidents, supported by the Bolivarian National Police and FAES officials, murdered two Venezuelans, Eduardo José Marrero and Luigi Ángel Guerrero, during a protest in the frontier city of San Cristóbal, on Táchira state. Other protesters were injured during the shooting.[315]

Maduro announced that state funds would be used to purchase new military equipment, saying "we are going to make enough investment so that Venezuela has all the anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems ... even the most modern in the world, Venezuela will have them because Venezuela wants peace".[316]

According to Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, "a military action of the United States against Venezuela would be contrary to the movements of the Trump administration to retire troops from Syria or Afghanistan."[317] John Bolton has declared that "all options are on the table", but has also said that "our objective is a peaceful transfer of power".[318]

Overseas assets

In mid-December, a Venezuelan delegation went to London to arrange for the Bank of England to return the $1.2 billion in gold bullion that Venezuela stores at the bank. Bloomberg reported that unnamed sources said the Bank of England declined the transfer due to a request from US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, who wanted to "cut off the regime from its overseas assets".[319] In an interview with the BBC, Maduro asked Britain to return the gold reserves deposited in London instead of sending humanitarian aid. He claimed that the gold was "legally Venezuela's, it belongs to the Central Bank of Venezuela" and could be used to solve the country's problems. Guaidó asked the British government to ensure that the Bank of England does not provide the gold to the Maduro government. Maduro also said that US sanctions have frozen $10 billion in Venezuelan overseas accounts. The US has said it will give Guaidó control of those assets once Maduro has been removed from power.[320]

The Portuguese bank Novo Banco denied Maduro's attempt to transfer 1.054 billion euros to Uruguay.[321]

Threats and intimidation

Guaidó presented his socioeconomic project Plan País on 31 January at the Central University of Venezuela.[322] The plan encompasses providing government subsidies to the most vulnerable populations in Venezuela, restoring experienced personnel—removed by former President Hugo Chávez—to PDVSA, and improving foreign investment.[322] As the presentation concluded, Guaidó rushed back to his home after being informed that security forces were outside his residence while his wife and child were there.[323][324][325] Neighbors stated that individuals dressed in black were seen near his home and gathered outside of Guaidó's home to support him.[325][326] The Bolivarian National Police denied that authorities were present in the area.[325]

According to Colombia's Caracol Televisión, Maduro said Guaidó was a clown with a "virtual mandate" who could be imprisoned.[327] During a speech given during the start of the judicial year in the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, Maduro "joked" saying "I was thinking about sending my assistant to the self-proclaimed to end his life."; seconds later Maduro pointed out that "it was a joke" and that "they don't know what humor is."[328] Diosdado Cabello—described by Urgente 24 News as the "president of the illegitimate 2017 Constituent National Assembly" and number two in command [of the country][329]—made another threat against Guaidó on 5 February in a public, videotaped discussion before the Constituent Assembly.[329][330] Cabello said that Guaidó had "never heard the whistle of a nearby bullet, you don't know what it feels like when a bullet hits three centimeters from you".[329][330][331] Cabello also was reported to have asked Guaidó how far he was willing to go, because they were willing, saying that "We will not care about anything."[330] Guaidó's response was, "Caracas is the most violent capital in the world ... we have had political assassinations ... they have killed more than 40 children. Venezuelans have had to listen already to too many whistling bullets produced by a regime that does not care about the lives, the welfare of Venezuelans ... who need medicine and food ... you will not stop us with veiled threats."[332]

On 10 February, Guaidó said that his wife's grandmother was threatened by colectivos.[333] The Lima Group has stated that Guaidó and his family face "serious and credible threats" in Venezuela.[198]

Notes

  1. Sources reporting on claims of the National Assembly being the "only democratically elected" or "only legitimate" political body in Venezuela include: Financial Times,[30] the BBC,[31] Economic Times,[32] CTV,[33] Business Times,[34] Reuters agency,[35] CBC,[36] etc.
  2. On unchecked power of the executive: Human Rights Watch 2018 report,[37] Human Rights Watch 2017 report,[38] Amnesty International,[39] and Amnesty International on opposition.[40]

See also

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