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What’s causing Venezuela crisis and what the world is doing about it

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The conditions leading to the current political crisis have actually been brewing for some time (see past coverage in the WOLA Venezuela Weekly on December 12, December 20, January 10, and January 22). Nicolás Maduro’s claim to a second term came as the result of the May 2018 electoral process widely considered unfair and lacking credibility.

Many countries made clear that they would not recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate president if he were to be sworn in. With that stance already in view, just what to do once Maduro did claim the presidency, as he did on January 10, has been debated both in Venezuela and among international actors.

The leading interpretation of the current course of action among the Venezuelan opposition comes from language in Article 233 of Venezuela’s Constitution, which states:

“When an elected President becomes permanently unavailable to serve prior to his inauguration, a new election by universal suffrage and direct ballot shall be held within 30 consecutive days. Pending election and inauguration of the new President, the President of the National Assembly shall take charge of the Presidency of the Republic.”

After Juan Guaidó assumed the presidency of the National Assembly on January 5, he stated that he would indeed be taking charge of the presidency, but that he needed time to gain the support of the people and the Armed Forces. In the following two weeks, he successfully carried forward a mobilization effort based on open-air meetings, called “cabildos abiertos.” This strategy was enormously successful, animating the opposition base and making Guaidó the focus of renewed hope.

From the day he was sworn in as leader of the National Assembly, Guaidó pointed to January 23 as the day the Venezuelan people would mobilize to reject the government of Nicolás Maduro as illegitimate. That day, turnout in major protests in Caracas and across the country was indeed massive and crossed class lines, with ample participation among working-class Venezuelans.

During the January 23 Caracas rally, Guaidó announced that he was assuming the functions of the presidency of the country, and was quickly recognized by the United States and members of the Lima Group, including Canada, Colombia, and Brazil.

Venezuela’s Constitution doesn’t contain a precise blueprint for what to do when an elected leader attempts holds on to power past his term, meaning political actors must be guided by constitutional interpretations. In normal circumstances, these interpretations could be argued before a court of law that would emit a ruling. However, given that Venezuela’s judiciary has been co-opted and controlled by the executive branch, this is not a viable path. Still, there is debate among some analysts over the strict constitutionality of Guaidó’s claim to the interim presidency and in particular over whether or not the president is truly “permanently unavailable to serve” by the letter of the law.

If one accepts that Guaidó is the interim president, the legitimacy of his role is premised on the organization of new elections. Article 233 actually says they should be held within 30 days. However, this is impossible with Maduro in power, and would be close to impossible for logistical reasons even if he were not.

Given the difficulties in interpretation and application, many Venezuelan human rights groups have preferred, like the Venezuelan Education-Action Program on Human Rights (PROVEA), not to weigh in on the constitutional debate or offer their own judicial interpretations, and instead focused on the path forward: free and fair elections by which Venezuelans can choose their own leader.

Following major nationwide protests on January 23, recent days have seen serious human rights violations in Venezuela. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet cites evidence that at least 20 people were killed by security forces or pro-government armed groups, and that well over 350 people were detained, all in less than 72 hours. On January 27, President of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó denounced the deaths that occurred and said the legislature would be reaching out to human rights NGOs for further information. He also called on Bachelet to move up a planned visit to Venezuela.

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