NEWS
25/01/2019 14:26 GMT

What's Behind The Crisis In Venezuela – And What Is The UK Doing About It?

Here's what you need to know.

Venezuela has had more than its fair share of international headlines this week, as the country’s deepening political crisis threatens to reach boiling point. 

The south American country, led by president Nicolas Maduro, has been struggling under the weight of growing discontent.

The socialist leader’s six-year tenure has been marked by economic collapse, hyperinflation and shortages of many basic items. Millions have fled the country in recent years to escape sky-high inflation rates and food shortages.

This week, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced the UK does not regard Maduro as the “legitimate leader” of the country, instead pledging support for National Assembly head Juan Guaido, who is attempting to seize power. 

So how has it got to this point?  Here’s everything you need to know.

Who is Nicolas Maduro?

Maduro, who succeeded Hugo Chavez in 2013, is increasingly seen as a dictator both at home and abroad.

He is backed by the country’s military and was sworn in for a second term as president earlier this month despite widespread claims of vote-rigging in last year’s election, which was subject to a boycott by the opposition.

The former bus driver who had a long career in trade unionism has been accused of abusing human rights and undermining the country’s democracy. 

Why is the president now under so much pressure?

Maduro has been increasingly accused of undemocratic behaviour by his opponents, and has presided over skyrocketing inflation, a collapsing economy and widespread shortages of basic goods. The country has been in recession since 2014.

Russia has been propping up Maduro with arms deliveries and loans. Over the last decade, China has given Venezuela $65bn in loans, cash and investment. Venezuela owes more than $20bn.

As Venezuela’s economic crisis deepens, with masses fleeing the country to escape runaway inflation on pace to surpass 23 million percent, many are desperate for a new leader to rescue the once-wealthy oil nation.

Associated Press
Nicolas Maduro was sworn in for a second term as president earlier this month 

Who is Juan Guaido?

The fresh-faced, 35-year-old politician was plucked from anonymity and named as president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly in early January.

The move set up a high-stakes standoff with Maduro and eventually saw Guaido stun Venezuelans on Wednesday by declaring himself interim president before cheering supporters in the capital of Caracas, buoyed by massive anti-government protests.

Key to Guaido’s rise to prominence has been timing – and behind-the-scenes backing.

An industrial engineer who cut his political teeth in a student protest movement a decade ago, he was elected to the National Assembly in 2015, and in its first session this year was named its leader.

Critics say Guaido lacks a political vision, pointing to his rambling debut speech as the legislature’s president, which was full of rhetorical barbs aimed at the “usurper” Maduro but short on specifics on how to get out of the malaise.

Still, others see his youth and relative inexperience as breathing life into the beaten-down opposition, making Maduro’s frequent diatribes that it is dominated by elitist relics from Venezuela’s pre-revolutionary past harder to stick.

Speaking on Wednedsay, he told Univision he would consider granting amnesty to Maduro and his allies if they helped return Venezuela to democracy.

“Amnesty is on the table,” said Guaido. 

“Those guarantees are for all those who are willing to side with the constitution to recover the constitutional order.”

Press Association
National Assembly head Juan Guaido is claiming to hold the presidency 

What do other countries say?

Support for Guaido has rolled in from the Trump, Canada and numerous Latin American countries, along with the Organisation of the American states.

But Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Turkey have voiced their backing for Maduro’s government.

Hunt said on Thursday that Britain believes Guiado is “right person to take the country forward.”

The UK also condemned as “totally unacceptable” Maduro’s decision to break off diplomatic ties with the US following Donald Trump’s recognition of the opposition leader as the South American country’s interim president, giving US embassy officials 72 hours to leave the country.

Hunt added: “The election on 20 May was deeply flawed; ballot boxes were stuffed, there were counting irregularities and the opposition was banned.

“This regime has done untold damage to the people of Venezuela, 10% of the population have left Venezuela such is the misery they are suffering.

“So the United Kingdom believes Juan Guaido is the right person to take Venezuela forward. We are supporting the US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina to make that happen.

“I will be meeting vice-president Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo later this afternoon to discuss this further.”

He added: “But for anyone in the UK who thinks that Venezuela is an example, who thinks that we should be adopting the policies supported by the discredited Maduro regime, they need to look at their TV screens and think again. This regime has caused untold suffering to its people.”

The remarks were seen as a thinly veiled attack on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose spokesman said: ”[Mr Maduro] is still the president of the country. We don’t support outside interference.” 

PA Wire/PA Images
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt

So what happens now?

Venezuelans are heading into uncharted political waters with the young leader of a newly united and combative opposition claiming to hold the presidency.

Guaido was sworn in and declared himself the acting president in the capital Caracas on Wednesday amid mass protests against Maduro, 

At least seven protesters were reported to have been killed in the escalating confrontation. 

Yesterday three Venezuelan lawyers asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to grant precautionary measures to protect Guaido, his wife and his daughter.

The request argues that the measure is needed to safeguard the life, personal integrity and personal freedom of Guaido and his immediate family.

The human rights body of the Organisation of American States has the authority to grant precautionary measures as a way to request states protection for persons at urgent and grave risk of suffering irreparable harm.

Meanwhile, Mexico and Uruguay are urging all parties involved in Venezuela’s crisis, both inside and outside the South American country, to try to reduce tensions and prevent an escalation of violence.

Uruguay’s foreign ministry released a statement on Wednesday saying the two countries are proposing a “new process of inclusive and credible negotiations with full respect for the rule of law and human rights” to resolve the dispute peacefully.

SIPA USA/PA Images
Venezuelans supporting the call to march for freedom on Wednesday