On January 10, 2019, Venezuela once again made headlines across the world. Nicolás Maduro’s inauguration ceremony for a second term snowballed into a major controversy. The truth is that, at the time of writing this report, no one knows for sure who the president of Venezuela really is.
The issue at hand is complex. One could find plenty of arguments from the past six years to challenge Nicolás Maduro’s claim to power. They range from Maduro’s birthplace to the way Hugo Chávez appointed him as his successor, not to mention his regime’s blatant disregard for basic human rights during several demonstrations, especially in 2017.
On May 20, 2018, the government held a so-called election for a new six-year presidential term set to begin in January 2019. However, it was deeply flawed, which led to several parties challenging its results. Venezuelans demanded new elections under fair conditions that followed basic rules set by the Constitution and international democratic standards. In a nutshell, Venezuela must hold a new presidential election to restore the rule of law.
Despite warnings and several statements by both local and international actors that this new mandate would not be recognized, Maduro continued to rule Venezuela. Time went by and January finally arrived, leaving the country at a crossroads.
In article 233, the 1999 Constitution establishes what must be done to fill a vacant presidency. The president of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s parliament, shall rule the nation while the people elect a new president to take office. This is where Juan Guaidó enters the picture. He is the opposition congressman who leads the National Assembly during this turmoil.
A lively legal debate has taken hold of Venezuela. Is Guaidó immediately the interim president? What should the destiny of Maduro be? As expected, there are conflicting answers, and the Constitution alone is unable to settle the matter.
One fact cannot be ignored: all the efforts to seek a legal solution to Venezuela’s puzzle are likely to fail. Despite its weaknesses, the 1999 Constitution was meant to function under the presumption of legitimate institutions and some sort of rule of law. The current circumstances in Venezuela are far from that. The country has become a failed state, impeding a solution within the boundaries of a normal legal system.
The Constitution is useful, provided there are political actors with real power willing to make it count. Instead, Venezuela seems to be facing the same quagmire of the past two decades: a ruthless socialist regime concentrating all power, including the military, and a democratic opposition solely armed with principles and the claim of what should be just and fair.
What seems undeniable at this stage is that Maduro will struggle without the international community’s recognition, including most Latin-American nations, the European Union, and the United States. Maduro’s isolation, however, does not necessarily mean his end. It wouldn’t be the first time that a regime in the region outlives democratic ostracism, and whether we like it or not, Maduro has powerful allies left that may assist him in his totalitarian quest. The regime will definitely face harsher times, since its resources are evaporating and the nation is close to collapsing in every aspect. Nonetheless, Maduro has the Supreme Court, the military, and most government agencies in his pocket.
In this scenario, Guaidó and the opposition must act wisely. Building a coalition must remain the priority, especially among the military officers who support Maduro. This is easier said than done, of course, but the population has surprisingly supported the new National Assembly’s leadership amid this hemisphere’s worst humanitarian crisis in recent times. This behavior is proof that hope trumps fear. Dictators know it. The coming weeks will be crucial for Venezuela. Let’s hope that hope will prevail.