Juan Guaidó, the 35-year-old National Assembly leader of Venezuela and the country’s highest ranking democratically elected official, boldly declared on January 23rd that he would assume the presidency. “I swear to formally assume the powers of the national executive as president in charge of Venezuela,” Mr Guaidó told a crowd in downtown Caracas, according to the New York Times.
Mr Guaidó’s direct challenge to the authority of Venezuela’s current leader, Nicolás Maduro, came after days of large-scale demonstrations against the current regime in the nation’s capital city of Caracas. While the demonstrations have been mainly peaceful, at least seven deaths have been reported as confrontations have escalated.
In the 24 hours since Mr Guaidó’s pronouncement, the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Peru, Ecuador, and Guatemala have recognised Mr Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Several other countries have made declarations on a spectrum of support for and against Mr Guaidó and the Maduro regime. In a way rarely seen in international affairs, these reactions illuminate major divisions and faultlines in current global alliances.
The right to rule
Numerous issues are at stake. One is the democratic legitimacy of Nicolas Maduro’s presidency. This has been severely undermined by the presidential election held last May which was widely regarded by neighbouring countries and Western powers as a sham.
The responses of European countries indicate that the threat to Venezuelan democracy is their primary concern. Stopping short of recognising Mr Guaido as Venezuela’s president, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that the May 2018 election of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro was "illegitimate". He also said he "salutes the courage of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marching for their liberty."
Early on Thursday, January 24th the EU issued a statement calling for the launch of a political process in Venezuela that would lead to fresh elections. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini issued a statement saying that the voice of Venezuelans calling for democracy "cannot be ignored," according to AP.
“The EU strongly calls for the start of an immediate political process leading to free and credible elections, in conformity with the constitutional order," Mogherini said.
Other nations have rejected the idea that the Maduro government needs a democratic mandate to rule. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that his government opposes coup attempts wherever they may occur. AP reported Erdogan's spokesman saying that the Turkish leader had made a phone call to Maduro to express his support: "My brother Maduro! Stay strong, we are by your side," Mr Erdogan said.
In Syria, the government in Damascus offered "full solidarity with the leadership and people of the Venezuelan Republic in preserving the country's sovereignty and foiling the American administration's hostile plans." Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has been a strong ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and visited Syria as foreign minister in 2011.
Political and economic disaster
Other sources, both internal and external, are questioning Maduro’s practical legitimacy. Disastrous economic policies in Venezuela have produced four years of recession and reduced the country’s economic output by half. At the same time, oil production has plummeted to the lowest level since the 1940s and inflation has risen above 1,000,000% in the past 12 months. The economic disaster has triggered a regional migrant crisis as more than 3 million Venezuelans have fled to neighbouring countries. Among those who remain, many contest the regime’s right to continue ruling.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Thursday that her government is considering recognizing Guaidó as president. According to AP, she told reporters in Sydney that Australia was concerned about the "clearly deteriorating political, economic and security and humanitarian situation in Venezuela” and feared it would have “significant effects across the Latin American region."
Speaking to the Portuguese news agency LUSA, Portugal's foreign minister Augusto Santos Silva appeared conscious of the Venezuelan government’s failings in both practical and democratic terms. Maduro needed to "understand that his time has come to an end,” Silva said, adding that he "cannot ignore the will of the people."
Left or right
Political ideology also seems to be playing a role. As a socialist, Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez developed close relationships with other left-wing and socialist governments in the region, including those in Cuba and Bolivia. Both countries were quick to express support for Mr Maduro after Mr Guaidó’s announcement.
The contrasting responses of Mexico and Brazil, Latin America’s two largest countries by population and economic output, also appear to reflect ideological differences. Both countries elected populist presidents in the last year, but with different political leanings. Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro is an open admirer of US President Donald Trump and has aligned much of his foreign policy stances with those of the US. He is also a strong critic of the Maduro regime in Venezuela. Tweeting from the Swiss resort of Davos where he is attending the World Economic Forum, Mr Bolsonaro said, "Brazil recognises Mr Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president.”
On the other hand, Mexico’s left-wing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has pursued a friendly relationship with Mr Maduro, who is a socialist, including inviting the Venezuelan leader to his inauguration. Mexico was the only member of the Lima Group of regional nations that declined to sign a statement on January 23rd recognizing Juan Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela. On Thursday, January 24th, a spokesperson for Mr Obrador said that Mexico recognised Maduro’s government “in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution," according to AFP.
Uruguay has stayed neutral, releasing a statement on Wednesday saying it was joining Mexico in encouraging a "new process of inclusive and credible negotiations with full respect for the rule of law and human rights" to peacefully resolve the Venezuelan crisis. Uruguay’s president, Tabaré Ramón Vázquez Rosas, is the leader of the leftist Broad Front coalition.
The Trump administration’s high-profile effort to oppose the Maduro government has also helped shape international reactions. In the past few months, the US has issued new sanctions on gold, oil, and a list of Venezuelan individuals involved in black-market currency trading. In early January, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised that the US would “work diligently to restore a real democracy” to Venezuela. US President Donald Trump has publicly mused that military actions could be taken.
Leaders in Russia, China, and Iran were quick to oppose implied US threats of intervention in Venezuela. On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed Gauidó's announcement an "attempt to usurp power" in violation of international law, according to AP. He also said the Russian government was concerned about statements "from foreign nations" ''which do not rule out foreign intervention." The latter comment was apparently a response to a statement made by US President Donald Trump on Wednesday, according to Reuters, that “all options” - including military ones - were still on the table.
Similarly, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Thursday that China "opposes external intervention in Venezuela,” and hoped that the US and Venezuela would “deal with their relations based on non-interference in each other's internal affairs." Iranian leaders denounced the opposition in Venezuela as a "coup" and accused the US of "flagrant intervention" in Venezuela's internal affairs.
Both Russia and China have made significant financial contributions to Venezuela’s current government, including a $5 billion loan secured from China after Mr Maduro visited Beijing last September and more than $3 billion in restructured loans from Russia in 2017. According to AP, Venezuela still owes more than $20 billion in outstanding loans to China.
On the sidelines
Israel, a historically outspoken nation, has kept quiet during the crisis. According to ynetnews.com, Israeli officials have decided not to comment “due to fears it might harm the Jewish community in the Latin American country”. Between 5,000-6,000 Jews live in Venezuela, and Maduro’s ties to Iran have made Israel wary of an anti-Semitic backlash.
Possibly delayed by intense ongoing Brexit negotiations with the European Union, the United Kingdom joined the position taken by the US and most Latin American countries later on Thursday. Speaking to media during a visit to Washington, Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said that Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó was “the right person to take Venezuela forward,” according to Reuters.