Venezuela‘s National Assembly, the opposition-controlled legislative body, declared President Nicolas Maduro a “usurper” last week, deepening the political and humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the country.
The declaration came about a week after Maduro was sworn in for a controversial second six-year term following an election largely boycotted by the opposition and considered fraudulent by many within the international community.
During the ceremony, President Maduro promised to “construct 21st-century socialism” and labelled his opponents as imperialists and fascists.
Shortly after, Juan Guaido, the head of the National Assembly, said he would be ready to take over as president and hold fair elections if Venezuelans and the armed forces backed him. Guaido has called for opposition protests later this month.
The developments come against the backdrop of a crippling economy. The annual inflation is now over one million percent, with the price of food and medicines too high for most to obtain. Millions have fled since 2015, according to the United Nations.
Sanctions have also complicated the situation, and it could get worse as the United States is considering harsher sanctions that could further reduce imports of Venezuela’s oil, and deepen the humanitarian crisis.
With protests and more uncertainty expected, Al Jazeera examines how Venezuela got here and what may happen next.
How did Venezuela get here?
Once considered the wealthiest country in Latin America, today, Venezuela is facing an unprecedented economic and political crisis marked by severe food and medicine shortages.
Critics of the government and members of the opposition argue that Venezuela’s economic woes are the fruit of years of economic mismanagement, and corruption, but government supporters blame falling oil prices, international sanctions, and the country’s business elite for Venezuela’s troubles.
When Maduro took over as president after Hugo Chavez’s death in 2013, the oil-reliant economy was already in trouble. When global oil prices dropped in 2014, businesses were no longer able to import goods at the same rate as before, skyrocketing prices and inflation.
According to analysts, the contraction of the national and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in Venezuela between 2013 and 2017 was more severe than that of the United States, during the Great Depression, or Russia, and Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union, heavily impacting the living conditions of millions.
In 2014, thousands took to the streets to protest inflation and living conditions. The government cracked down on the protests, leaving at least 11 dead.
In 2015, opposition politicians won a majority in the legislature – the National Assembly – for the first time in nearly two decades.
However, in 2016, Venezuela’s government stripped the National Assembly of powers to oversee the economy, and in March 2017, the judicial branch briefly dissolved the National Assembly.
The court reversed its order due to the national and international outcry, but by then massive protests were already taking place. Protests left more than 100 dead, and 1,000 arrested.
Maduro also created the National Constituent Assembly in 2017. Stacked with Maduro supporters, the Constituent Assembly has the mandate to drafting or reforming the Constitution.
Since then, the crisis has continued. Millions of Venezuelans have fled soaring inflation, food and medicine shortages and unemployment.
In 2018, Maduro won a controversial election, boycotted by the majority of the opposition. At the beginning of this year, he was sworn in, with the opposition and many within the international community calling him an illegitimate leader.
After the inauguration, the National Assembly stepped up its pressure on Maduro, declaring him a “usurper”. The body’s president, Juan Guaido, said he is ready to assume power if its the will of the people, who he has called to take to the streets later this month.
The US also said it is considering further sanctions that would target the oil industry.
“[This time] It’s more serious than I’ve heard before,” a refining industry executive familiar with the White House discussions told Reuters news agency. “They are setting the table to pull the trigger if they have to.”
But despite the challenges, Maduro currently enjoys the support of the military, and the government controls through its supporters most of the country institutions, weakening any attempt by Guaido or the National Assembly from taking power from the president.
|Thousands of protesters march in an anti-government demonstration on March 4, 2014, in Caracas, Venezuela [File: John Moore/Getty Images]|
What do the government and its supporters say?
Maduro has repetitively denied that Venezuela is facing a humanitarian crisis and sustains that the country is being attacked by the opposition, the US and its allies.
The president has also tried to continue with Chavez’s policies, attempting to appeal to his supporters’ base.
Maduro insists that the 2018 election was legitimate and that the opposition boycotted it because it knew it would lose. Supporters also argue that the legitimacy of these elections doesn’t depend on international recognition.
“This is a show that is trying to destabilise the country,” Maduro said [last week].
“They are a group of kids that control the opposition and want to play to create chaos, it’s the same group that carried out the street protests and every day they will have a new show.”
Supporters also believe that the opposition is trying to execute an agenda that will lead to more violence.
“The opposition is trying to encourage conflict, so that it could justify external intervention,” Juan Romero, a writer, analyst and a government supporter, told Al Jazeera.
“The main challenge that the president has is to keep the order with no violence,” Romero added. “It also has the challenge of not falling into isolation with the US and the OAS initiatives.”
In September last year, Luis Almagro, leader of the Organization of American States (OAS), suggested the possibility of military intervention.
But despite these challenges, people like Romero remain loyal to this regime and wish for it to continue.
“I have no doubts of the legitimacy of this government. The president controls all the powers, except that from the National Assembly, it also holds most of the governorates and the municipal councils. This leaves the opposition with the unique resource of violence,” he added.
Economic sanctions have also played a role in this conflict. Five US refiners significantly reduced or completely replaced purchases of Venezuela crude in 2018.
Venezuela exported 500,013 barrels per day to the US last year, down from 591,422 bpd in 2017.
Sanctions have not only targetted the oil industry, but also the gold sector.
Supporters believe that the government is fighting two battles at the same time.
“Venezuela is facing two wars, one at a local level, and one abroad” Alberto Mathison, a government supporter told Al Jazeera.
“The government has been constantly attacked by the transnationals and the people who manage the industry and the distribution channels, on top of that the opposition is receiving a heavy support from the global right,” Mathison said.
“A global right that doesn’t acknowledge our own law, and that aims to invade our soil,” he added. “We are resisting and we don’t know when will this stop, we hope this can be resolved in a democratic way.”
|Venezuela’s politician and member of the armed forces Diosdado Cabello, left, late President Hugo Chavez, centre, and current President Nicolas Maduro [File: Ariana Cubillos, Natacha Pisarenko/AP]|
What does the opposition say?
The opposition and its supporters believe they are living under a “dictatorship”, and consider Maduro’s government illegitimate. The group also declared itself in a state of “disobedience” in 2017.
Venezuela’s opposition blames the previous government of Hugo Chavez and the current one of Maduro for the economic woes the country is facing, the corruption, the violence in the streets and the constant mismanagement.
During the latest series of events, the Venezuelan opposition and a large part of the international community argued that Maduro’s reelection last May was fraudulent and illegal due to irregularities in the process.
By the time the election took place, most of the candidates who could have contended against the president were barred from running.
The US, European Union, the Lima Group and several civil organisations, said Maduro’s win did not meet international standards.
“The elections were not authentically free, parties and people couldn’t compete, more than seven important parties were declared illegal, there were political prisoners who couldn’t contend and the electoral system didn’t demonstrate its autonomy or its independence,” Jose Vicente Haro, an expert in constitutional law in Venezuela, told Al Jazeera.
On January 10, opposition leaders branded Maduro’s second term as illegitimate and called for the National Assembly to declare the presidency vacant.
“If the presidency falls in an illegitimate situation, as it’s the situation now, the Constitution clearly states that the President of the National Assembly is allowed to take power,” Haro said.
“But he has 30 days to announce a final election date. He is not authorised to stay in power for six years, as it would be the case with an elected president,” he added.
Ronal Rodriguez, a professor and researcher at the University of Rosario’s Venezuelan Observatory in Colombia, called the situation a “huge institutional mess”.
“Venezuela has a government that has been sworn in but that lacks international support, except for countries like Russia, China and Turkey, and we have a National Assembly that is trying to promote a person that doesn’t have the political experience to take power,” he said.
Supporters also believe the regime has left the country in miserable conditions.
“Life is really hard, and it’s getting harder every day in Venezuela,” Rachid Yasbeck, a Venezuelan citizen a militant in the opposition told Al Jazeera.
“You work for a month, and you can’t even buy or find cheese, food that is fundamental to the Venezuelan diet. Diseases are increasing to the point of having paludism and tuberculosis, hospitals are in deplorable conditions.
“Our infrastructure is also in ruins, we need a change, and we think we are not too far away. We’ve noticed internal cracks within the government and the military, the change is not too far ahead,” he added.
|Juan Guaido, President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, delivers a speech during a public session with opposition members [File: Fernando Llano/AP]|
What do Venezuelans say?
One of the biggest challenges facing Venezuelans is hyperinflation. According to a study released by the National Assembly, by the end of 2018, prices were doubling every 19 days on average.
Many remain hopeless.
“[Regardless of the politics] we don’t have a good life [in Venezuela], we are forced to leave. There are people dying because we don’t have the right medicines in the country, or food, or we don’t have security in the streets,” Rosina Estrada, a Venezuelan citizen, told Al Jazeera.
The International Monetary Fund anticipates that the country’s inflation rate will reach 10 million percent in 2019.
Venezuela is also facing what has become the largest exodus in Latin America history. Over three million people have fled the country since 2014, and it’s expected to reach 5.3 million by the end of 2019, according to the UN figures.
“The situation we are living in is unprecedented. And on top of all the domestic challenges, we are seeing a fragile government that still has some power and force, but that is slowly losing control,” Ramon Pinango, a Venezuelan sociologist, told Al Jazeera.
The dire situation have led many Venezuelans to question the current government, analysts say.
“Maduro has a big challenge internally with the current hyperinflation [and the situation], it’s obvious that his rule doesn’t have the support that Chavez had,” Javier Buenrostro, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said.
“But we can’t forget that the opposition is not characterised for playing fair, and they haven’t found support among the citizens either,” he added.
The opposition, as a group, has also showed divisions and has failed to demonstrate clear leadership in its movement.
One clear of example took place in 2017 when four opposition politicians broke with the official line and acknowledged the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly, after a loss for the group in regional elections.
“The Chavismo not only managed to win critical elections [back then], they also managed to put the opposition in crisis by leading them to an electoral confrontation,” Marco Terugi, an author and political analyst explained.
|One of the biggest challenges facing Venezuelans is hyperinflation [File: Rodrigo Abd/AP]|
What is expected next?
The opposition has called for a series of demonstrations, similar to the ones that took place in 2014 and 2017, on January 23. The date marks the anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marco Perez Jimenez.
“The opposition is trying to appeal to the symbolism of that day. However, a question that remains to be asked is will [the opposition] take the risk of mobilising the streets, and facing a violent confrontation? Will they be responsible for those victims?” Ronal Rodriguez said.
The international pressure is also expected to intensify, with some countries withdrawing their diplomats and others considering recognising Guaido as the president.
According to Haro, if the National Assembly lets Guaido be sworn in as president, he must then call for elections.
“That’s the mission of the National Assembly, to take the Venezuelans to free and clean elections, where people can freely decide,” Haro added.
But the impasse is not just political. The foreign pressure on the economy and the internal confusion are also hitting the embattled country.
“The international community is increasing its pressure, but this does not mean that the regime will fall. If something has been demonstrated by the Chavismo, it is that it knows how to reinvent itself,” Rodriguez said.
“The final solution must come from within the country, not from outside,” he added.