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Commentary: Is Venezuela next on Obama’s checklist?

In the past couple of years it has become apparent that President Obama’s administration has sought to repair broken ties with countries around the world. Cuba and Iran are two prominent examples. With the recent elections in Venezuela, it’s not all that outlandish to assume that Venezuela is next on the president’s checklist.  It might be necessary to first give a brief overview of recent U.S.-Venezuelan relations to see how they got to where they are currently. In 1998, Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela with the backing of his Socialist Party. The Chávez government cast an iron grip on nearly every institution, extending its power to the courts, military, legislature, and private business. Upon Chávez’s death in 2013, his hand-picked successor Nicolás Maduro had taken over the reins in what became coined as Chavismo. Both Chávez and Maduro were constantly at odds with the United States, blaming it for many of its domestic issues.

The common argument by the Venezuelan leaders involved accusations of constant U.S. meddling in Venezuelan affairs, and the desire of U.S. officials to overthrow the Venezuelan government. For Chávez, he remained immensely popular while in power and was viewed as very charismatic by the common Venezuelan. Maduro on the other hand, lacks that charisma and instead has relied on threats aimed at his people.  For a country which is home to the world’s deepest recession in which the economy is expected to contract 10 percent, and where inflation is expected to jump up to 204 percent, the highest in the world, those threats by Maduro are becoming increasingly tiresome. Shortages of food and medical supplies have become the standard, and while plummeting oil prices are a major reason for Venezuela’s economic issues, the government’s refusal to adapt its policies has only exacerbated the issue.  On Dec. 6, the legislative elections in Venezuela are perhaps a precursor into the change its citizens are now able to fight for.

The National Electoral Council announced that the opposition had won at least 110 seats in the 167 seat assembly. With this two-thirds majority, it would allow the opposition to pass laws releasing political prisoners, of which Maduro had arbitrarily banned seven from running for office, and others such as Leopoldo López, have been sentenced to as many as 20 years of imprisonment for political reasons. It would also enable the opposition to reverse senior legal positions made by the current government, and potentially call a referendum on Maduro’s presidency.  Given this newfound power in the opposition, which hasn’t happened in over 16 years, domestic and international actors need to take the proper steps to ensure this isn’t a wasted opportunity. Within Venezuela, although the opposition victory is a turning point, it does not necessarily mean the end of Maduro. As mentioned before, Maduro firmly controls the courts, military and the bureaucratic organs of government.

This could severely limit the capabilities of the opposition in the event of a referendum on Maduro’s future.  In addition, the opposition isn’t exactly an entirely united front. It’s entirely possible that opposition leaders will separate from each other and attempt to take credit for the election success. If Venezuelans are truly ready to remove Maduro and his Socialist Party from power, unity within the opposition is absolutely essential. Already, Maduro has announced a cabinet reshuffle, and vowed to veto any amnesty law for jailed politicians. The opposition should stand united to defeat any such veto attempt, and ensure they have a proper voice in the new cabinet members.  Internationally, things get a little foggier. I would not be at all shocked if the Obama administration sought to repair relations with Venezuela, because frankly the administration seems to think it can become friends with everyone nowadays. That being said, attempting to repair those relations would be foolish, at least while Maduro is in power.

Maduro will undoubtedly lash out at the U.S. after the electoral defeat, and any extension of unconditional support from the U.S. to the Venezuelan opposition will only give Maduro more ammunition to paint the U.S. as imperialistic. Rather the U.S. should utilize the Organization of American States to voice its support for the democratic success in Venezuela, and let the situation play out a little longer before getting involved in an uncertain situation.

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