1. Who’s in charge in Venezuela?
While Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido both claim to be president, Maduro still has control of key assets including the military, media, police and state-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA. Guaido, the president of the opposition-dominated National Assembly, announced Jan. 23 that he had assumed Maduro’s powers atop a caretaker government until new elections could be held. His move has been recognized by the U.S., Brazil, and dozens of other countries. Blaming Washington for orchestrating the effort to remove him, Maduro broke diplomatic relations with the U.S. after Guaido’s move. In April, his regime stripped Guaido of the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by members of the assembly, opening the door to his arrest.
2. What could tip the balance?
Maduro is the protege and successor of Hugo Chavez, the leftist army colonel who was first elected president in 1998 after having been imprisoned for leading a failed coup in 1992. Top leaders of the military have benefited under the regime from government contracts and mining concessions, as well as their control of ports and PDVSA. Guaido has sought to lure officers to his side by offering amnesty to those who defect; if he gains support from rank-and-file army members it would be a major blow to Maduro. But Guaido’s failed bid to push out Maduro at the end of April underscored how scant his military support remains.
3. What else could make the difference?
Control over Venezuela’s oil reserves, the largest in the world, could prove critical. Oil accounts for the overwhelming majority of Venezuela’s income. The U.S. has slapped sanctions on PDVSA that effectively block the OPEC member from exporting crude to the U.S., its biggest customer. American companies are barred from selling Venezuela the light oil it needs to dilute its heavy crude, further hindering PDVSA’s ability to export.
4. On what grounds does Guaido claim the presidency?
With the backing of the U.S. and other countries, Guaido has argued that Maduro’s May 2018 reelection was illegitimate. With that as the foundation, he cites Article 233 of Venezuela’s constitution, which invests temporary presidential power in the head of the National Assembly when the presidency is otherwise vacant. In a column for the Washington Post, Guaido also cited Article 350, which says Venezuelans “shall disown any regime, legislation or authority that violates democratic values, principles and guarantees or encroaches upon human rights.”
5. Why is Maduro’s 2018 reelection in question?
Maduro’s election to a second six-year term was marred by the jailing and disqualification of opposition politicians -- most of whom ultimately joined a boycott of the vote -- along with the coercing of government workers to vote and reports of fraud. The result was dismissed as illegitimate by the U.S., the European Union and the 14-nation Lima Group, formed to help restore democracy to Venezuela.
6. Is it premature to recognize a new Venezuela government?
In a way, yes. Typically, governments recognize leaders that have effective control of their countries. There are exceptions. In 1989, the U.S. withheld recognition of Manuel Noriega as Panama’s leader after he canceled elections in which polls had him trailing badly. (Three months later, the U.S. invaded and Noriega was deposed.) In 2011, the U.S. recognized Libyan rebels as their nation’s governing authority even while Muammar Qaddafi was still fighting to hold onto power.
7. What nations still back Maduro as president?
Russia and Bolivia continue to recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s rightful leader, as does China, which has said it “opposes foreign forces from interfering into Venezuela affairs.” Early on, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who survived an attempted coup in 2016, called Maduro to say, “Stand tall, we are with you.”
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