Venezuela has more oil than Saudi Arabia and more poverty than Colombia. Once one of Latin America’s richest countries, it’s now plagued with shortages of everything from toilet paper to antibiotics and food. It’s been a steep downward spiral since the heady days when the late President Hugo Chavez set out to use an oil boom to light a socialist path to prosperity, not just for the poor in Venezuela but across Latin America. Chavez died in 2013, about a year before oil prices fell sharply. His protégé and successor, Nicolas Maduro, 56, has tightened his hold on power as opponents complain of economic mismanagement, corruption and political oppression. His critics inside and outside the country are pushing back, pressing for Maduro’s ouster.
Juan Guaido, 35, the president of the opposition-dominated National Assembly, announced Jan. 23 that he would assume Maduro’s powers temporarily, a move recognized by the U.S., Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Peru and Chile. Guaido invoked a constitutional amendment that allows for the head of the legislature to lead a caretaker government until new elections can be held. The Assembly had already declared Maduro’s rule illegitimate following his re-election in May, which was widely seen as a charade. Maduro has dismissed actions by the Assembly, which was stripped of its power in 2017 by a Supreme Court largely loyal to the president, but the body remains recognized as a legitimate source of authority by regional powers. After the legislature offered blanket amnesty to any officials who helped bring down the regime, a score of national guardsmen attempted a rebellion, though it was stamped out Jan. 21. The battle for power is taking place amid an economic crisis. Venezuela’s economy has contracted for five years straight. Average daily oil production has decreased by about 1 million barrels in that period. Inflation is forecast to reach 10 million percent in 2019. The hard times and a crackdown on dissent have driven almost 3 million Venezuelans to leave the country. In 2017, one aid agency said more than 11 percent of children under age 5 were suffering from moderate to severe malnutrition, yet Maduro has rejected humanitarian aid. Venezuela defaulted on a portion of its debt in 2017, and creditors are demanding more than $9 billion in overdue bond payments. The U.S. and the European Union have imposed sanctions against the country for human-rights abuses, political repression and graft.