By COLIN SUSZYNSKI
On Wednesday, Jan. 23, Juan Guaidó declared himself interim President of Venezuela. Just hours later, the United States recognized him as such. Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela, rejected Guaidó’s claim and denounced the United States for staging a coup, reiterating a claim he has made in the past — that U.S. imperialist aggression was attempting to destroy Venezuela.
In the following week, other Western countries backed Guaidó, including Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia. Many European countries offered Maduro an ultimatum — hold free democratic elections or lose recognition. Maduro refused, and many announced support for Guaidó. China, Russia, and Cuba, among several other countries, have backed Maduro and have criticized U.S. policy. President Donald Trump has made it clear that he is considering military action, further heightening tensions.
The U.S. decision to back Guaidó, and so quickly, was a bad foreign policy move that will hurt our ability to act diplomatically with our foreign adversaries. Furthermore, it is a gross intrusion into the political clashes of a sovereign nation, something U.S. politicians have been complaining about since 2016.
But first, what is happening? And why?
Venezuela has been mired in economic and political crisis since 2014, when the global price of oil dropped. Venezuela sits on one of the largest oil reserves in the world, and its economy relies on it. Prior to 2014, the price of oil had risen since 1999, roughly when the previous President, Hugo Chávez, took office.
During Chávez’s rule, the Venezuelan economy boomed and Chávez was popular, especially among the lower classes due to his progressive social programs. Chávez died in 2013, and in the following year, oil prices dropped. Maduro, Chávez’s Vice President, took office in 2013. In 2018, he was re-elected, in an election criticized by many as unfair. Since 2014, the Venezuelan economy has only gotten worse, and many Venezuelans blame Maduro. Protests began in 2017. Then, just last month, at a protest, Guaidó declared his presidency and the United States backed his claim.
Guiadó and his allies claim that Nicolás Maduro was never re-elected in 2018, because the elections were plagued with corruption and fraud. Guaidó’s constitutional claim to the Venezuelan presidency rests on this assertion. Guaidó is the President of the National Assembly and, according to Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution, when Venezuela is devoid of a President, the President of the National Assembly should assume leadership until democratic elections are held.
But while Maduro might lack the foreign recognition that lends a leader legitimacy, he has the support of the military and political elites, as well as some Venezuelans. So long as Guaidó does not have those, or rather, so long as Maduro does, Guaidó’s presidency will have very little buying power.
The United States had already done its part in 2018, when Maduro was elected, by denouncing the results as illegitimate. The United States gave Guaidó all the ammunition he needed in 2018 — the rest should be up to Venezuelans.
The United States made the right move by rejecting the results of the 2018 election. It was the correct way to recognize and denounce injustices without imposing U.S. policy and invoking accusations of imperialism. However, on Wednesday, Jan. 23, when Juan Guaidó said he was ready to assume the Presidency, the U.S. made the wrong move.
Backing Guaidó hurts the United States’ ability to work diplomatically with foreign adversaries. Countries with whom the United States has strained relationships are closely watching U.S. behavior in Venezuela. Russia, Iran, and China have already denounced U.S. action. These countries are observing the United States support another regime change because the leader did not conform to the United States’ way of doing things. Why would these countries trust the United States in a diplomatic discussion when it might do the same to them? Why would they ever seek to alleviate tensions?
More importantly, Maduro still has support from a portion of the population. U.S. intrusion gives Maduro a good enemy to rally those people around. If we had never backed Guaidó, the protests still would have boiled over and some kind of solution would have arrived. It may have been reached through violence, but that is not for the United States to dictate. By imposing ourselves before Venezuelans worked through the crisis themselves, we have given those who still support Maduro a common enemy. Backing Guaidó, and threatening military action did not and will not help the United States spread democracy — it is more likely that we will create another nation resistant to it.