The United States and much of Latin America agree on at least one thing: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro must go. Maduro won a second six-year term in office in May 2018, but the election was marked by low turnout and allegations of voter fraud. Now, an opposition leader has risen to challenge Maduro for control of Venezuela by appealing to the military. But Maduro and his allies will be reluctant to cede power, making it likely that the situation will devolve into a violent confrontation between the government and the opposition.
The challenges for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are growing by the day. On Jan. 23, U.S. President Donald Trump, seven Latin American states and Canada recognized Juan Guaido, the head of the opposition-controlled Venezuelan congress, as the country's legitimate president. Guaido declared himself the legitimate president earlier in the month, justifying his claim on the grounds that Maduro won his second term in a fraudulent election. Upping the stakes, Guaido has also offered an amnesty to any members of the military — whose loyalty is key to the government retaining power — who rebel against Maduro.
Why It Matters
Guaido's recognition by the United States and outside powers will not, by itself, threaten Maduro's position, as the sitting president is only likely to leave as a result of heavier international sanctions and more intense opposition protests. Nevertheless, the recognition of Guaido as president raises pressure on the Venezuelan armed forces and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). By recognizing Guaido, the United States has implicitly acknowledged that it will take measures to penalize Venezuela's government if it does not permit him to become president. For one, the White House is mulling an oil import ban that would quickly affect Venezuela's finances and further hasten the decline in its oil production.
The looming sanctions and opposition pressure also raise the likelihood that military officers and other PSUV elites might eventually waver and press for Maduro's resignation or removal. The growing recognition of Guaido as president also makes it likelier that members of the international community will impose tougher sanctions on Venezuela if the embargo fails to dislodge Maduro or if his administration cracks down heavily on protesters. A government response that results in mass deaths could even trigger talk of a U.S. military intervention — although such an outcome is still unlikely.
The Venezuelan opposition is leading a renewed wave of protests with the intent of removing Maduro from power. Maduro came to power in 2013 after former President Hugo Chavez died. The United States is assisting the opposition in its attempts to remove Maduro from power by enacting heavier sanctions that are designed to sow divisions among Venezuela's armed forces and government.