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How Venezuela Arrived At Its Political Crisis


Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro insists he's not going anywhere. He remains in place even though European nations have recognized an opposition leader as president and protesters flooded the streets over the weekend.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Si, se puede. Si, se puede.

INSKEEP: Si, se puede, they're saying - "yes, it's possible" or "yes, we can." But Maduro supporters were marching, too, marking the 20th anniversary of Venezuela's socialist government. That government's rise to power is the backdrop for this moment. It came to power with a 1999 election of Maduro's populist predecessor Hugo Chavez. A specialist on Latin America, Miguel Tinker Salas of Pomona College, followed Chavez's career.

MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: For the first time, you had a leader in Venezuela that looked like the mixed-race population, that spoke like them, acted like them. And he was able to utilize much of that to, again, promote social programs and to be re-elected on multiple occasions.

INSKEEP: So this populist guy, Hugo Chavez, tries a coup, fails - but ends up winning an election, taking power - huge media figure, on television all the time, dominating everybody's lives and says he's going to change everything. How did he change things in the last years of his life?

TINKER SALAS: The first was political reform, the constitution of 1999, which is today being promoted by the opposition, which at that time they opposed. Then there was a coup in 2002. He came back. And then we had dramatic investment in social programs - health care, education, housing. But that could only happen as long as oil prices were exceedingly high. And eventually, as prices declined, there would be a reckoning. And that reckoning has happened.

INSKEEP: At what point did it become apparent that, amid all of this spending, that the oil money was starting to run out.

TINKER SALAS: As the prices after 2014, 2015 begin to decline, Chavez has died. You begin to have shortages of basic food products, long lines. You have the U.S. sanctions, mismanagement, corruption. There are several factors.

INSKEEP: And I guess it was in this period that Chavez's party began losing elections, that his successor, Nicolas Maduro, his party tried to keep control of the legislature and totally lost. Right?

TINKER SALAS: Correct. It's the very first electoral victory the opposition scores in the National Assembly.

INSKEEP: So they won the legislative elections, but then Maduro's government completely disempowered the legislature. Right?

TINKER SALAS: Right. Maduro increasingly relies on what he will call the National Constituent Assembly (ph), which is this clause in the constitution which he activated to create a alternative body.

INSKEEP: So wait a minute. Maduro is clearly losing power from 2015 onward. And instead of just fighting it out in elections, he ends up taking all the power away from the National Assembly, winning re-election with deeply disputed methods. How much popularity, though, does the president still seem to have, if any?

TINKER SALAS: According to some polls - even opposition polls - anywhere from 25 to 30 percent, even with the current crisis. And the opposition to Maduro is not just from the right. There are people protesting against Maduro that are protesting because he has not fulfilled the promises he made to the popular sectors. The opposition, they are united in ousting Maduro. It's not clear that they are united on what comes next.

INSKEEP: The opposition leader Juan Guaido has said he's president under this provision that says that the legislative leader becomes interim president if there's a vacancy of the presidency. But isn't he limited to holding that office for 30 days until he can figure out an election?

TINKER SALAS: Yes. And this is where it becomes kind of problematic because the constitution says 30 days. I'm hearing already from opposition sources saying that maybe they need a year to cleanse the political process. That would lead to more chaos. And that's the fear of playing to the military. What happens if you do find a faction in the military and we do wind up with an open military conflict? The consequences would be disastrous for the country.

INSKEEP: Is the opposition movement discredited at all because it has such overt support from the United States?

TINKER SALAS: For an important segment of Venezuelan society, it is. The fact that you have Donald Trump, whose actions in terms of Latin America vis-a-vis the border, immigrant families, the separation of children. And then you have John Bolton and statements about the oil company. That baggage is part of what Guaido now carries.

INSKEEP: Even with that said, does it seem to you that the opposition is legitimate on some level, that they represent the broad majority of society?

TINKER SALAS: I think the opposition is a legitimate force in Venezuela. I think that they not always have been Democratic. We have to go back, understand that in 2002, they supported a coup. The reality is that unless there is a negotiated solution, unless the parties can come together, it puts us back at square one tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Miguel Tinker Salas, thanks very much.

TINKER SALAS: Thank you very much.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1999. In fact, he was elected in 1998 and took office in 1999.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 3, 2019 at 11:00 PM CST
We incorrectly say Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1999. In fact, he was elected in 1998 and took office in 1999.