Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, who has led his country into one of the world’s worst economic crises, was sworn in for a new six-year term on Jan. 10.
His inauguration at the Supreme Court was a lonely one: Some 40 countries – including the United States, Brazil, Colombia and the entire European Union – are refusing to recognize Maduro’s government because they believe his May 2018 re-election was rigged.
How else could a leader with a 21 percent approval rating win 68 percent of the vote?
Most Venezuelans hold Maduro – the late Hugo Chávez’s handpicked successor, first elected president in 2013 – responsible for their suffering.
But holding Maduro accountable has proven vexingly difficult.
Seeking change democratically
Citizens can democratically demand change from poorly performing leaders in three ways: vote them out of office, protest for them to change course or resign, or make demands through face-to-face dialogue.
Venezuelans have tried all three.
The last free elections in Venezuela were held in December 2015. Opposition parties won the Venezuelan legislature in a landslide, securing a super-majority that gave them unprecedented strength to check Maduro.
His ruling United Socialist Party responded by progressively stripping the legislature of its powers and ensuring the Socialists would not lose another election.
First, the government-run national electoral agency canceled a proposed presidential recall vote in 2016. Then, in July 2017, the Socialist Party called an unconstitutional vote to elect an alternative legislature. Later that year, party officials openly committed fraud in regional elections.
When Maduro stood for re-election in 2018, Socialist Party officials disqualified leading opposition politicians and parties from running and forced the vote seven months early to prevent them from reorganizing.
Many Venezuelans fought for their democracy.
From April to July 2017, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets nationwide, mostly in peaceful protest. Marchers in Caracas who neared the presidential palace or government ministries were met by police and soldiers in riot gear who scattered them using tear gas, water cannons and, often, live ammunition.
At least 124 people were killed during Venezuela’s 2017 protests. Another 4,000 were injured and 5,000 were arrested, according to the Inter-American Human Rights Council. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, were tortured.
Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Amid all of this, Venezuela’s opposition also tried talking with Maduro’s government.
But dialogues in 2014, 2016 and 2018 — including one mediated by the Vatican — achieved little. Arguably, the talks weakened the opposition-led protest movement by giving the appearance of government concessions.
The military option
After democratic elections, protest and dialogue failed to resolve Venezuela’s political crisis, some international leaders proposed a more drastic measure to create political change.
In August 2017, shortly after the U.S. slapped economic sanctions on President Maduro himself, President Donald Trump said that the United States was considering a “military option” in Venezuela.
“Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering, and they are dying,” Trump said. “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”
Administration officials even met with Venezuelan military officials plotting a coup before declining to support their plan.