Thousands of protesters filled the streets in cities across Venezuela over the last month in an effort to depose President Nicolás Maduro, the socialist leader who has overseen one of the most devastating economic collapses in the world.
And now President Donald Trump has joined them in calling for Maduro to step down — stoking the fires of an already fraught political crisis roiling the South American country. He even mentioned it during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.
The Trump administration now backs Juan Guaidó, the leader of the country’s opposition-controlled legislative body, who claims he is the country’s rightful president.
Guaidó, along with the Trump administration and many international observers, asserts that Maduro rigged the election last May that kept him in power. Citing Venezuela’s constitution, Guaidó and others say the sham vote means that he, as the head of the National Assembly (the country’s legislative body), is now the interim president of the country.
Guaidó wants the country’s military to back him and called for people to protest to compel Maduro’s resignation. Guaidó says he will start to assume the presidential role on Wednesday and that he will call for new elections in the future. He doesn’t plan to hold on to the presidency indefinitely, he says.
The Trump administration, along with leaders in North and South America and Europe, now supports his claim. On January 23, President Trump issued a statement saying he was “officially recognizing” Guaidó as “the Interim President of Venezuela.”
But experts caution that Maduro will likely maintain power since he still has a strong hold over the country’s major institutions. Which means that the country could be heading into a dangerous political showdown.
There are good reasons why Guaidó and the anti-Maduro movement have found an audience
Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years due to a crippling economic downturn — a crisis largely caused by Maduro’s mishandling of the economy. Inflation is through the roof. Hunger rates have skyrocketed. And diseases once thought eradicated have sparked a health crisis.
This has made Maduro deeply unpopular — his approval rating is below 20 percent. And Maduro hasn’t helped his case. With crony support, he made three moves that turned the population and much of the political class against him.
- In October 2016, the country’s supreme court — stacked with Maduro loyalists — stripped the National Assembly of its authority to have any say over the economy.
- Then in March 2017, the judicial branch dissolved the National Assembly altogether. After an international outcry, the court reversed its decision but still severely reduced lawmakers’ powers.
- And in July 2017, Maduro held an election to create a new body to replace the National Assembly — one that would have the authority to rewrite the country’s constitution. Maduro’s allies won all 545 seats.
Those moves strengthened the anti-Maduro opposition. Yet experts say Guaidó’s ascent is nevertheless surprising.
Despite being leader of the National Assembly, Guaidó was largely unknown until recently, when pictures of him speaking to large crowds led many in the country to see the 35-year-old as Venezuela’s Barack Obama.
That’s because Maduro still controls many of the country’s institutions, particularly the military. So unless the US plans to intervene directly in Venezuela, it seems unlikely Guaidó and his supporters will see Maduro’s downfall anytime soon.