A week after mass protests broke out in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, which called for the ouster of the country’s embattled authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro, the European Union has given the radical leftist the option of calling snap elections in the coming days or the 28-member bloc will join the US, Canada, and most of Latin America in recognising the head of the National Assembly Juan Guaido as the interim president.
Brussels’ Foreign Policy chief, Federica Mogherini, announced on January 27 that the European Union was moving closer to aligning with several other countries in their demand that Maduro step down as the Venezuelan public’s growing hostility towards his autocratic-style of rule and mismanagement of the economy has transformed the energy-rich South American country from one of the region’s most developed as prosperous nations to one of its poorest.
The EU’s shift towards the pro-opposition camp – led by the US, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina – has put the European Union in a group of countries that openly oppose Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Turkey, and Syria – all of whom have come out in support for Maduro.
On January 23, Guaido said that he would assume the role of interim president as head of Venezuela’s legislature after invoking an article in the nation’s constitution. Guaido and his supporters have offered a legal basis for the move having cited last year’s rigged election that gave Maduro another term in office. The opposition has said that the vote was invalid due to the violation of international election standards and, therefore, no democratically elected head of state is available to run the country.
Under these circumstances, Venezuela’s constitution allows for a caretaker government to handle the daily operations of the country until new elections can be held.
Guaido’s announcement was almost immediately endorsed by US President Donald J. Trump, as well as by Jair Bolsonaro and Mauricio Macri – Trump’s counterparts in Brazil and Argentina. The three, along with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, publicly expressed their “full support” for Guaido and Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly.
The support for Guaido from both North and South America prompted the EU to cautiously choose sides. “The EU stands with the Venezuelan people in this critical hour, and will continue to follow events closely, including at the next Foreign Ministers meeting next Thursday,” Mogherini said in her statement. “The EU stands ready to act in support of an immediate and credible process of engagement, including through the immediate establishment of an International Contact Group. Contacts and coordination with regional and international partners are ongoing, and will be intensified in the coming hours”
Speaking later at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, Mogherini said, “The EU strongly calls for the urgent holding of free, transparent and credible presidential elections in accordance with internationally democratic standards and the Venezuelan constitutional order,” before adding, “The massive, popular demonstrations which have taken place in Venezuela over the last days have been met with indiscriminate violence from the authorities, leading to the tragic death of numerous people and many more injured and arrested.”
The EU’s official statement, however, came only after Spain, whose ties to Venezuela as latter’s former colonial master make it the European country with the most political influence in the Hispanic world, was the first to openly back Guaido as the legitimate Venezuelan leader. Madrid’s announcement was later followed by similar calls from France, Germany, the UK and Portugal.
French President Emmanuel Macron took to his Twitter account on January 26 to publicly endorse Guaido’s interim government, saying, “Without elections announced within 8 days we will be ready to recognise Juan Guaido as the ‘president in charge’ of Venezuela to start a political process. We are working on this between European partners.”
Though Mogherini’s statement was a major policy declaration by the EU regarding the ongoing crisis in that it called for fresh elections to be held, the somewhat vague wording of “further actions, including on the issue of recognition of the country’s leadership” revealed that Europe’s chief executive is taking an incremental approach to the situation in Venezuela.
This is due to the fact that several EU countries remain sceptical about the unfolding situation, with several – including Italy, Austria, and Greece – who, in the case of Athens, openly back Maduro due to their like-minded political allegiance to anti-Western, leftist politics or – as is the case in Italy and Austria – their support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his alliance of former Soviet client states that oppose the United States in all foreign policy related issues.
Despite being occupied by the continued uncertainty over Brexit, the UK’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt stated his government’s support for Guaido, whom he described as “the right person to take Venezuela forward” and pledged to recognise him as interim leader if no new election is held in the coming days.
The British government took a further step to complicate Maduro’s attempt to cling to power when the Bank of England denied the embattled Venezuelan regime access to one of its largest deposits of dwindling assets that it holds in foreign banks. Maduro was stymied in his bid to pull out $1.2 billion worth of gold from the Bank of England after US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton requested that the UK help cut Maduro off from his regime’s overseas financial reserves.
Opposition spreads as regime clings to power
The latest mass protests against Maduro’s rule come almost exactly two years after some of the largest demonstrations in Latin America’s history when an estimated 6 million people, or 20% of Venezuela’s total population, took to the streets and demanded Maduro’s resignation due to the country’s high levels of urban violence, inflation, corruption, political repression, and chronic shortages of basic goods – all which have been attributed to the harsh Cuba-style Marxist-Leninist economic policies that Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, imposed on Venezuela after coming to power in December 1998.
Chavez, who described his rise to Venezuela’s highest office as the “Bolivarian Revolution” – a reference to the 19th-century independence leader – Simon Bolivar, was able to make some social and economic gains between 2004-2007 due to the record-high oil prices of the time. But mass deficit spending on unsustainable prestige projects both at home and abroad – including the provision of huge amounts of oil and gas supplies at cut-rate prices to fellow Marxist governments in Nicaragua and and Cuba, as well as the handing out of vast sums of cash to the Venezuelan government’s ideological ally, Bolivia, came at the expense of devoting funds to ending systemic economic and social disparities at home.
These poorly planned policies initiatives helped nullify the financial gains that Venezuela experienced more than a decade ago and have ultimately helped to doom Chavez’s revolution.
An insatiable appetite for arms purchases from Russia and its expensive financial and military support for the FARC – the Communist guerrillas who carried out terrorist activities in Colombia for over 50 years – coupled with both Chavez and Maduro’s embrace of government’s such as the Islamic Republic of Iran and radical terrorist groups including Hezbollah and Hamas, helped isolate Venezuela from the majority of the power brokers in the Americas.
The aversion that the region’s wealthier nations had for dealing with Venezuela also came from their opposition to the statist economic policies that were and have been the calling card of the Venezuelan regime for the past 20 years. This had led to chronic shortages due to the inefficiency and widespread corruption in companies, both foreign and domestic, that were forcibly nationalised by both Chavez and Maduro. This has forced the population to undergo a severe rationing programme for basic consumer goods, including cooking oil and milk, but also for petrol in a country which is one of the largest energy producers in the world.
The result has destroyed Venezuela’s once-booming economy and has left regional observers to warn that the country is teetering on the brink of economic catastrophe with inflation having hit 1,300,000% last year.
Protests against Maduro began less than a year after he assumed the presidency following Chavez’s death from cancer in March 2013. Maduro’s gross mismanagement of an already troubled economy and his own unhinged paranoia that is directed at both real and imagined political rivals and opposition activists has led to a sharp increased in the number of arrests and human rights abuses, as well as a major crackdown on dissent and freedom of speech.
Since the widespread public opposition to Maduro’s government began to grow five years ago, the regime’s security forces have been responsible for the deaths of an estimated 200 people and the arrest of up to 12,000 others.