These are the ills plaguing Venezuela, once the wealthiest country in South America. Though Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, residents are leaving in the millions as the society around them crumbles.
Last week, the leader of the opposition and the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself president, invoking an obscure clause in that country’s constitution. The Trump administration immediately recognized his ascendancy, leading critics to call his power grab a soft coup d’état. Other nations, including Israel, endorsed the move, especially since Maduro came to power last year in elections that were highly suspect.
What went wrong? When did the chaos in Venezuela begin?
President Nicolás Maduro was elected for the second time in May 2018, in elections that were about as free as those held in Syria: Some of his opponents were jailed, while others were prevented from running at all. But that wasn’t enough for Maduro, and after his election “victory,” he decided to first complete his original term, which ended on January 10, and only after that to swear himself into office for a second term.
Since that date, there has been increasing unrest, and it’s only growing stronger. On January 23, opposition leader and chairman of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó declared himself Venezuela’s interim president and called for free elections. Within minutes, in a move that was likely coordinated with the Trump administration, the White House announced that it would recognize Guaidó as the new president, joining most of South America and Canada. Major European powers said they would recognize Guaidó pending new elections. Those still supporting Maduro include Russia, Turkey, and Cuba.
What happened to Venezuela’s economy?
Venezuela is currently suffering from the highest inflation rate in the world, and a GDP that has fallen 35% in just four years. Basic foodstuffs are absent from store shelves, and malaria, measles, and diphtheria have returned with a vengeance. By contrast, Maduro and his ruling elite of political and military allies are living the high life at the expense of the country’s poor.
How did Venezuela get to this point?
It’s a combination of a corrupt, rule-by-might political culture and shortsighted management that didn’t account for changes in the global economy. When Hugo Chávez ruled the country as president from 2002 to 2013, he used the proceeds of steadily climbing oil revenues for welfare projects that included combating poverty and the introduction of food subsidies. After Chávez was succeeded by Maduro, the price of oil fell, and the Venezuelan economy, which doesn’t have much going for it besides oil, crashed. In 2014, shortly after Maduro was elected, oil was selling for over $100 a barrel, netting the country over $75 billion annually. By 2016, however, prices took a nosedive to $30 a barrel, and today, Venezuelan exports amount to just $31 billion. Oil production has also slowed, from almost 3 million barrels a day at the height of the Chávez era, to 2 million today.
This economic catastrophe is filtering down to every possible stratum — from inflation in the millions of percentage points to a skyrocketing crime rate and unprecedented infant death rate. Maduro’s reign has brought the country to the brink of disaster, making a change of leadership almost inevitable.
What do we know about Guaidó?
The charismatic Juan Guaidó, 35, is a mechanical engineer by profession. His gambit to declare himself interim president is based on a clause in the constitution stating that the chair of the National Assembly is allowed to assume interim power and declare new elections in 30 days if the legislature deems the president to have failed to fulfill his basic duties.
Guaidó is new to the National Assembly, elected only in 2015. Prior to that, during his student days, he led protests against former president Hugo Chávez. As the leader of the main opposition party, the centrist Popular Will, Guaidó is in a precarious position. In the past, many of his party’s leaders were jailed or forced into exile. Guaidó himself was appointed chairman on January 5, and by the 13th was already behind bars. After he was freed, Guaidó succeeded in coaxing hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans to the streets, proving his political and diplomatic savvy.
Where does Israel stand?
The US administration asked Israel to stand behind Juan Guaidó, and on Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared his support.
“Israel joins the United States, Canada, most of the countries of Latin America and countries in Europe in recognizing the new leadership in Venezuela,” Netanyahu said in a short video statement.
Jerusalem is worriedly keeping an eye on the status of the country’s 6,000 Jews, and a senior diplomatic official told me there is no evidence of harm or harassment. The Jewish Agency and other entities are likewise monitoring the situation. Maduro’s government has no diplomatic relations with Israel, so recognizing the opposition is no great risk.
In 2000 Venezuela had a Jewish population of 22,000, but many have left for the United States or Israel, fleeing political and economic uncertainty.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 746)
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