2.1 The Issue
Home to more than twenty-eight million people, Venezuela has played an important role in South America and the global economy. This role is driven largely by its energy wealth, which is powered by the world’s largest known oil reserves. However, Venezuela also presents a significant challenge to international peace and security. In recent years, political and economic conditions in the country have grown increasingly unstable, threatening the economies and security of its neighbors and trading partners and fueling a growing humanitarian crisis.
Under Hugo Chávez, a leftist leader who governed Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013, the government enjoyed years of domestic approval—in part because of its extensive spending on social programs, made possible by high oil prices. But Chávez’s economic policies—such as increasing market interventions and mismanagement of the state-owned energy company—spurred inflation and led to declines in investment and production in the non-oil sectors of the economy.
The government lost political support after Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s longtime deputy, took over as president in 2013. Maduro’s administration repeatedly responded to challenges by cracking down on dissent. It arrested opposition leaders and accused Western countries of meddling in its domestic affairs. In 2014, the plummeting price of oil drove Venezuela’s economy into further crisis, as oil is the country’s only major export. Meanwhile, crime escalated in many forms that continue today. In urban areas including the capital, Caracas, kidnappings, murder, and robbery plague both affluent and poor neighborhoods. Terrorist organizations such as the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) use the rural Venezuela-Colombia border as a haven and drug trafficking corridor.
In January 2019, Maduro was sworn into a second presidential term after an election marred by widespread criticism of vote-rigging and efforts to repress opposition. Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared the Maduro government illegitimate and proclaimed that, under Venezuelan law, he would assume the interim presidency until elections could be held.
Although nearly sixty countries initially recognized Guaidó as interim president, he has been unable to rally sufficient support to dislodge Maduro from power. In addition to watching his popular approval plummet inside Venezuela, Guaidó has lost considerable support internationally, and in January 2021, the European Union reversed course on recognition of his interim presidency, instead referring to him as a "privileged interlocutor.” Meanwhile, Maduro has consolidated more political control over the country, and conditions in Venezuela continue to decline.