Whatever you think of Maduro, ‘regime change’ is up to Venezuelans – not the US

Venezuela’s a mess, but that gives no right to interfere writes Vanessa Baird.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro walks next to a painting of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez, during a special session of the National Constituent Assembly to present his annual state of the nation in Caracas, Venezuela January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

Nicolás Maduro is hardly a model leader or democrat. Nor is he much cop on the economics front.

But whatever you think of him, the decision on whether he stays or goes as Venezuela’s president belongs to the people of that crisis-ridden South American country and they alone.

It is most emphatically not that of any foreign power.

The statement by US Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday that the US was recognizing opposition and National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as the self-proclaimed interim president of Venezuela, was a flagrant violation of international rules.

The governments of Canada, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina, are little better for jumping on the US bandwagon.

As writer and academic Miguel Tinker Salas points out the UN Charter article 2(4) reads:

‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.’

Article 19 of the Organization of American States Charter, to which they are signatories, states: ‘No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State. The foregoing principle prohibits not only armed force but also any other form of interference or attempted threat against the personality of the State or against its political, economic, and cultural elements.’

Venezuela is living through surreal times. Once the richest country in the continent, able to help poor regional neighbours like Cuba and Bolivia with supplies of cheap oil, today its people struggle to buy food, let alone medicine. Inflation was a staggering 1.3 million per cent in November 2018; the IMF predicts it will reach 10 million per cent in 2019. US sanctions have not helped, but are not alone to blame for the country’s extraordinary economic woes.

For the past 40 years, successive governments have mismanaged the country’s oil wealth via a toxic and divisive politics of ‘clientelism’. Revenues from oil have used it to buy votes and political advantage from supporters, while excluding non-supporters. When in power the Right governed for their middle and upper class backers and ignored the poor. When in power, the Left, under Chavez, did the same in reverse, building houses and creating programmes for their mainly working class supporters, while ignoring and alienating the rest. Neither political tendency bothered to create a diverse economy, to wean the nation’s dangerous over-reliance on one commodity whose global price was subject to fluctuations. And the sharp decline in the price of oil coincided with the lamentable rule of Nicolas Maduro, which started when Hugo Chavez died in 2013.

Today Venezuela is sitting on the world largest oil reserve. This is an important fact to keep in mind as events unravel over the next few hours, days, weeks, months. It is key to its relationship with the rest of the world – including the US.

Russia, heavily invested in Venezuelan oil, is backing Maduro. China is strongly opposing foreign interference in Venezuela’s affairs, while Germany appears to be supporting the 35-year old engineer Guaidó and calling for new elections.

Better than backing sides, deepening division and upping the risk of serious violence, foreign states would do better to back initiatives, such as Uruguay’s and the Vatican’s, to heal the deep political and social wounds in Venezuela .The UN secretary General Antonio Guterres too is calling for dialogue to avoid a ‘disaster’ in Venezuela.