Juan Guaido, widely acknowledged as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president by most Latin American nations, plus the U.S., Canada and a few European nations, issued a plea for Venezuelans and the world to support him in his epic struggle to depose Nicolas Maduro as dictator of Venezuela. The plea, published in the New York Times on Jan. 31, was a broad introduction of Guaido to the world and reminiscent of Herbert L. Matthews' February 1957 articles by introducing Fidel Castro to the world.
While we are generally familiar with various mathematical formulas, the fascinating political standoff brewing in the South American country might best be captured by the formula: Castro + Chavez = violated Venezuela. It is fascinating because aside from immigration problems with Mexico, Americans don’t give much thought to events south of the border. It is true we’ve recently become cognizant there are a few pesky Central American countries, namely El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, emitting hordes of poverty-stricken citizens hoping, somehow or other, to “enter” the U.S.
It is ironic that the last Latin American country to get our attention was Cuba, following Fidel Castro’s 1959 victory over Fulgencio Batista and Castro’s subsequent alignment with the former Soviet Union, leading to the Cuban missile crisis and a brush with nuclear war in 1962. It is ironic because Cuba is once again a bit player in the latest Latin American drama. To understand what is happening in Venezuela, one must remember that when Castro overthrew Batista he galvanized youth around the world, particularly in Latin America. Although we focus on Maduro now, he was actually put in power by his benefactor, the late Hugo Chavez, who dominated Venezuela as president from 1999 to his death from cancer in 2013. While Chavez was just 5 years old when Castro took power in Cuba, he became enamored with the communist tyrant as an adult and upon assuming power, sought to remake Venezuela in Cuba’s image.
The puzzling thing is by then the Soviet Union had already crumbled and Russia could no longer afford to subsidize the Cuban basket case suffering from the U.S. embargo initiated following the missile crisis. But Chavez, megalomaniac that he was, saw himself as a new Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan champion who led the liberation of much of South America from Spain 200 years ago.
Furthermore, Chavez likely saw similarities between Castro and himself. Both had led failed insurrections in their countries, been captured, tried, jailed and released to public acclaim before eventually coming to power. Both longed to play on a wider stage. Castro tried by tweaking the Yankee behemoth’s nose from time to time and sending troops to fight in Africa. Chavez tried by pushing what he called the Bolivarian Revolution, establishing 21st century socialism, cobbling Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua into a political bloc and establishing BancoSur to sidestep the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. But most of all, Chavez admired Castro’s internal security forces as a means of controlling internal dissent.
Chavez’s ambitions were aided by the fact Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, and at that time oil prices hovered in the $100 per barrel range. Since Russia no longer provided subsidized oil to Cuba, Chavez decided to take up the slack. He made it so easy that Cuba didn’t even have to pay cash but provided Venezuela with about 25,000 doctors to work in remote areas. Ever the showman, Chavez established PetroCaribe to provide oil to Caribbean and Central American countries in a scheme that would bind them to him plus give him influence over their economies and foreign policies. According to the CARICOM website, “Venezuela offers oil agreements to member countries, which must pay 60 percent of the bill within 90 days. The remaining 40 percent can be financed over 25 years at one percent interest, should oil prices stay above US$40 per barrel. Financing takes into account the current cost of oil, allowing for more favorable terms when the cost is higher. Countries may also offer goods and services to pay off oil shipments; ranging from food such as beans and sugar, to human capital such as doctors.”
Two major problems have cropped up with PetroCaribe countries. One: Although the deferred 40 percent payment was meant to enable them to invest in infrastructure, education and health care, many countries squandered the money on corruption and frivolous things, especially at election time. Two: Venezuela controls elements of their foreign policies, which is why few PetroCaribe countries voted for a recent Organization of American States resolution condemning Maduro and supporting Guaido. Not wanting to bite the hand that feeds them, they either voted “no” or abstained.
Before he died, Chavez appointed Vice President Maduro his successor. Maduro who previously had been a lowly bus driver, became more and more oppressive, utterly wrecked the nation’s economy to the extent stores and shops offer only bare shelves. Hospitals are without medicines and manufacturing and food production have crashed due to lack of foreign exchange to import spare parts and fertilizer. It is estimated that between 3.5 million to 5 million Venezuelans have fled the country to Brazil, Colombia and other neighboring countries.
Now Guaido is seen as the new hope. The OAS and the U.S. have declared Maduro’s election last May illegitimate. They have coalesced around Guaido as interim president based on Article 233 of the country’s Constitution, which states if at the outset of a new term there is no elected head of state, power is vested in the president of the National Assembly until free and transparent elections take place. The U.S. has put sanctions on the Venezuelan national oil company, owner of Citgo in the U.S., and turned all that nation’s financial assets in this country over to Guaido.
Venezuela, once the richest country in Latin America is now among the poorest. Interim President Juan Guaido is facing a tough job. His job could be made easier through words paraphrasing the Venezuelan National Anthem Gloria al Bravo Pueblo (Glory to the Brave People): Glory to the brave people who shook off the yoke of the vile selfishness of Chavez and Maduro who had once triumphed. Let’s cry out loud “Down with oppression!”
May the gallant democratic leaders and patriotic, hard-working people of Venezuela soon see brighter days and the return of those forced to flee socialist tyranny and hardship.