Water shortages, nationwide blackouts, soaring food prices: For years, Venezuelans have struggled to make ends meet as their country has been submerged in an economic and political crisis. Millions have fled Venezuela.

But President Nicolás Maduro has managed to hang on to power despite the chaos around him. In May, he claimed reelection victory in a widely disputed vote that the opposition largely boycotted.

Maduro was inaugurated to his second term in January. As several Latin American countries and the United States deemed the Maduro government illegitimate, Juan Guaidó, the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared himself interim president — claiming he had the right to do so under Venezuela’s constitution.

Since then, the political stalemate in Venezuela has deepened. Both men claim to be the rightful leader of a nation plunging further into crisis. Russia, Cuba and other countries recognize Maduro, while the United States, much of Europe and Latin America recognize Guaidó.

On Tuesday, Guaidó appeared at a military base in Caracas, flanked by armed men in military uniforms. He called for Venezuelans to take to the streets and join him in the “final phase” of what he called “Operation Liberty” — an effort to remove Maduro from power.

Confused by how Venezuela got to this point? Here is a primer for readers trying to make sense of the story.

How did Venezuela plunge into economic crisis?

Venezuela has larger proved oil reserves than any other country. But experts say longtime mismanagement of the country’s oil sector and a dramatic drop in oil prices globally worsened Venezuela’s economic woes.

It did not help that investors were scared off by the country’s deteriorating economic situation. In recent years, Venezuela’s crude oil production and exports have steadily declined. Hyperinflation made the costs of goods skyrocket, and people soon could not afford such essentials as food and medicine.

"That decline we’ve been watching the last three years was really by virtue of the fact people have not reinvested in new [oil] production in Venezuela in a long time,” Sarah Ladislaw, director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Washington Post earlier this year.

Just how bad did the humanitarian crisis get?

Really bad. Venezuela’s health system has faced major setbacks. Hunger is widespread, and water, food and medicine are in short supply.

In a Post report last month, analysts said that about two-thirds of Venezuelans have experienced either water shortages or total loss of water in recent weeks, forcing people to collect water from unsafe sources. Doctors said they were seeing an uptick in cases of diarrhea, typhoid and hepatitis A. Even hospitals have limited water and power supply.

There has been a resurgence in diseases that had been controlled: Thousands of people have been diagnosed with measles, and thousands more are suspected to have contracted diphtheria. Research published in the Lancet Global Health journal in January noted a sharp increase in infant mortality rates, from 15 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2008 to 21.1 in 2016.

Jenny García, the lead researcher in the Lancet study, told The Post at the time that Venezuela has “lost 18 years of progress.” She called her statistical model conservative.

So, who’s in charge now?

It depends on whom you ask.

Guaidó declared himself interim president on Jan. 23. Soon, about 50 countries recognized him as such. But Maduro refused to back down.

Some Venezuelan officials have defected to Guaidó’s side, but many military leaders remain loyal to Maduro.

Does this mean there’s been a coup?

In an April 30 televised address, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro denied that opposition protesters had taken over the La Carlota military base. (Associated Press)

Well, as The Post’s Adam Taylor explained Tuesday, that depends on how one defines “coup.”

Officials in Maduro’s government have certainly called the situation a “coup” and have described members of the military siding with Guaidó as “traitors.” Guaidó’s side insists he took power through legal means. “The coup is being led by Maduro,” Guaidó said Tuesday.

Did Maduro try to flee the country this week?

Speaking outside the White House, national security adviser John Bolton emphasized that the U.S. wants to see a peaceful transition of power in Venezuela. (The Washington Post)

Washington says he did. Maduro says he did not.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN this week Maduro “had an airplane on the tarmac” prepared to help him flee to Havana but that Russia intervened.

Maduro "was ready to leave this morning, as we understand it, and the Russians indicated that he should stay,” Pompeo said.

Maduro vehemently denied the claims. “Mr. Pompeo, please. Such a lack of seriousness,” he said Tuesday on state TV. “Mr. Bolton gave orders to high-ranking officers to join the coup that was overcome in Venezuela. . . . Dear God, how far will the U.S. go?”

The Russian government said Washington’s claims amounted to fake news.

What now?

Guaidó had hoped a large number of military officials would rally beside him, but his effort was not entirely successful. On Wednesday, both he and Maduro called for their supporters to take to the streets of Caracas.

Clashes the day before had turned violent. An armored vehicle plowed into a group of Guaidó supporters. Dozens of people were injured in clashes, during which rubber bullets and live ammunition were used. At least one person died. More than 100 people were arrested.

Washington seemed to think there was a good chance Maduro would flee Venezuela on Tuesday. But he did not. Now, Guaidó faces the risk of arrest.

Dozens of protesters were injured in clashes as Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced the "final phase" against President Nicolás Maduro. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Read more