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Venezuela: How could such a rich country become so poor (Part IV)

Thursday April 4 2019

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Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ death was shrouded in mystery and conspiracy. It happened sometime between December 2012 and February 2013. This set into motion article 233 of the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution, which deals with the president’s absolute absence in case of death, resignation, destitution, incapacity or popular revocation.

In his last public appearance, Chavez asked Venezuelans to support Maduro as his successor if anything were to happen to him. His death and public support for the ever-faithful 'yes-sir' former bus driver, cracked the party on the inside.

Maduro struggled to fit into Chavez’ big charismatic shoes by trying to appeal to a kind of spiritual presence of Chavez within his very own soul. He spoke in the same threatening tones Chavez mastered so well, and continued the same policies. But Maduro was not Chavez, and he did not know it.

In 2015, just two years into Maduro’s term, a legislative election derailed Maduro’s plans forever. The united opposition took control of Parliament. This loss sent frightening shivers down the spine of every 'chavista'.

The government party knew that Maduro could not win a presidential election, but they still controlled the supreme court, electoral commission and all other independent offices.

A monster assembly is born

The response was sad, insincere and immature. Maduro’s party boycotted parliamentary meetings and formed its own 'constitutional assembly'; a political monster which made no sense from a constitutional and democratic point of view.

This parallel assembly turned out to be a choir of low-IQ joy riders; a disgusting club of friends who said yes to everything possible and impossible, in exchange for financial and political favours.

Maduro’s support and grip weakened irremediably. As his popularity plummeted, he quickly staged a snap presidential election, where all relevant opposition parties and candidates were banned.

The elections were held on May 20, 2018, and Maduro claimed victory with 67 percent of the vote and a 40 percent turnout. It appears the real turnout was close to 17 percent and voting centres all over the country were empty on election day.

This election was marred by deep irregularities and it was rejected by the National Assembly as unconstitutional. There was also a public exchange of food-for-vote which scandalised any serious observer.

The president’s absolute absence

Thus, when Maduro’s six-year presidential term came to an end on January 9, 2019, the National Assembly agreed that there was an absolute absence of a validly elected president. This made Maduro a usurper of the presidency.

Article 231 of the Venezuelan Constitution says that the elected candidate will take the oath before the National Assembly, or if not possible, before the Supreme Court. Pressure then mounted on Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly, to take the oath as interim president, in accordance with article 233.

Keep in mind that this is the same article that had given interim powers to the president of the National Assembly in 2013, when Chavez died. Back then, Chavez’ party (in control of the National Assembly) had followed the same legal steps Guaidó is following now.

Who is Juan Guaidó?

Juan Gerardo Guaidó Márquez is the son of a taxi driver who was once a pilot. He comes from a low-income simple family in La Guaira, a neighbourhood near the main airport.

Guaidó graduated with an engineering degree in one of the best universities in Venezuela, and did two masters degrees in governance and policy; the first one at George Washington University in the U.S., and a second one at the most prestigious business school in Venezuela.

Guaidó took the presidential oath on January 23, before the Assembly and a million-plus supporters, in one of the main avenues of Caracas. Some news agencies and governments regarded Guaidó’s oath as ‘self-proclamation’ but this is a misunderstanding of how things work in most civil law systems.

In the civil-law system, the figure of the Chief Justice does not exist, at least not in the way we know it in common-law countries. So, a president takes the oath, alone, before the assembly, which represents the people, which is what Guaidó did.

A passing cloud in a complex game of chess

Guaidó is aware that he is a passing cloud in the country’s political chess. His three-pillar motto is quite simple: we must end the usurpation (Maduro’s sticking to power without free and credible elections), form a transition government, and then go for free elections.

Guaidó is still stuck in the first part of his motto (end of usurpation), Maduro, aided by Cuba and Russia, still has effective control of the country, and the world is split between those who support effective control and those who support the rule of law, for clearly the ‘constitutional assembly’ is a no-no in the legal framework of the country.

Most South American countries are fed-up of Maduro’s artificial and clumsy desire to ride on Chavez’ long-dead popularity. It is also deeply disturbing for Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Paraguay, Panama, Chile, Canada, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, England and the United States that their free public spaces are populated by the sudden and untenable wave of desolate Venezuelan immigrants, many of them being desperate highly skilled professionals.

The right-left non-sense labelling

The international media has simplistically labelled it as a right versus left political battle; Trump versus Putin, Bolsonaro versus Erdogan. Truly, this intricate Venezuelan crisis has little or nothing to do with right or left. Guaidó is not in the radical right and Maduro is not a leftist. The real drama is that Guaidó is yet to prove himself as a leader, while Maduro has already proved himself a bad failure.

Certainly, the support Guaidó has received from the United States is overshadowing that of any other country. But so also is the rejection and distancing of the international left from Maduro, who is perceived as an embarrassment for the left, anywhere in the world.

Sadly, it all comes down to money. Anything happening in Venezuela has a direct impact on U.S. gas prices, and on Turkey and Russia’s gold extraction, and China’s iron ore and bauxite exploitation.

China and Russia are protecting their own financial interests in Venezuela, which Maduro has so far secured. Support for Maduro could easily wane (and China has already said so) if Guaidó assures them of some sort of security over their current investments and business interests in Venezuela.

Who will protect Venezuela’s interests?

With great concern, the Officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet, former leftist president of Chile and close friend and confidant of the late Hugo Chavez, issued an update on the Venezuelan human rights situation at the 40th session of the Human Rights Council.

In her report, Ms Bachelet narrates a long list of dramatic indicators of human rights abuses, among them extrajudicial killings, abuse of office, censorship and incarceration of politicians and journalists, hunger, lack of minimum acceptable health care…and because of this ''more than three million people have fled Venezuela, in search of food, health care, work and protection.''

The situation is worsening and Maduro’s government is becoming more and more repressive. For as long as the military (or at least the more important section of the military) remains married to Maduro, there is no peaceful way out.

Cuba’s present and future hangs on Maduro’s handouts. Guaidó may need to sit at the table with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, to neutralise Cuba and prevent what seems to be the only other way out, a U.S. occupation, the only visible short term solution. History would not easily forgive and forget this.

Dr Luis Franceschi, Dean – Strathmore Law School, [email protected]