The political situation in Venezuela hangs in the balance. On the one side, president Maduro, who has assumed the presidency for another period of six years, after a strongly questioned election in May last year, when the leading opposition candidates were prevented from participating. On the other side the young speaker of the National Assembly Juan Guiadó, who has invoked the constitution for his assumption of the post as interim president until new elections have been held. The background is that the opposition, which dominates the National Assembly, considers last year’s election of Maduro as illegitimate. This opinion is shared by great many countries; USA, Canada, most of the Latin American countries and EU, including Sweden.
USA, Canada and most of the neighboring countries were quick to acknowledge Guaidó as the interim leader of Venezuela. EU chose to demand that Maduro should call for a new, democratic presidential election. Maduro has rejected that demand. Therefore, EU has expressed support for Guaidó as interim president with the task of leading the country towards a new election. A contact group has been formed by European and Latin American countries to support that process, with Sweden as one member.
The regime of Maduro is under strong pressure. The popular manifestations for a political change are enormous and likely to continue. The driving force is the pent-up frustration over the immense economic decline, the shortage of food and medicines, the insecurity in the streets, and the repression, with lethal violence against demonstrators and imprisonment of political opponents.
In addition, comes the pressure from the world around. USA has imposed more severe sanctions on the regime. The latest step is the employment of their most powerful economic weapon; sanctions on Venezuela’s oil trade. It is a controversial measure. It will, under the coming months, strongly reduce the regime’s revenues from oil exports, which are the base for country’s economy. This tough policy aims at forcing a regime change, but will also hurt the population through further difficulties for import of food etc.
Maduro’s regime is still supported by part of the population. But the majority that once carried Hugo Chávez to power has now shrunk to a minority of loyalists. Is uncertain how big it is. The election to the National Assembly in 2015 was won by the opposition with a wide margin. It is very likely that the support for Maduro has diminished further since then.
Most important: Maduro still has the power over the state functions, including the security services, and is supported by the military. Cuba supports the regime and has a great presence with personnel, both in the civilian and military sectors. Further afield there are friendly powers, which also have economic interests in Venezuela, particularly Russia and China.
Is it wise and is it right to do what EU and Sweden now has done; express support for Guaidó as leader of a process towards new elections, although Maduro actually continues to exercise the presidential power? The strategy is not without risks. The military apparatus may not switch allegiance, which Guaidó is urging (even though individual representatives already have done so). That would make it possible for Maduro to stay in power, not allowing the popular anger to express itself politically, through an election. Such a development would pave the way for more violence and delay the change to policies that can bring the country back on its feet.
Maduro and his supporters entirely reject the opposition’s interpretation of the constitution. There are also critical voices outside Venezuela, particularly from the political left. Maduro was legitimately elected for another six years, one argues, so there is no power vacuum allowing an interim president to take office.
But in the end, this is not an issue about right or wrong form a legalistic point of view. It is about finding a way out of a serious political, economic and social crisis, by giving the Venezuelan citizens the possibility to democratically elect their leadership. That will give a new regime legitimacy and be the beginning of the country’s rise from the ongoing economic and social decline. Therefore, EU and Sweden are making the right choice to express clear support for that process.
EU and Sweden must also support Guaidó’s efforts to make the political base behind him as broad as possible. The new Venezuela must not be a project primarily for the economic interests that are linked to the old elite. The aspiration for social justice and wellbeing, which was at the original core of the “chavismo” (even though the political application has failed dismally), must be included. The political engagement from Europe should also be supplemented with humanitarian aid to alleviate the acute problems.