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 largely driven by its energy wealth, which is powered by the world’s largest known oil reserves. Venezuela also presents a significant challenge to the United States. Over the decades, Venezuela’s politics have become increasingly anti-American, first under Hugo Chávez, a leftist leader who governed Venezuela from 1998 until his death in 2013, and then under his successor, Nicolás Maduro.
Under Chávez, the Venezuelan 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 intervention 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 Venezuelan government lost political support after 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 the United States of meddling in its domestic affairs. In 2014, the plummeting price of oil, which is the country’s only major export, drove Venezuela’s economy into further crisis. 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. The United States has also confirmed that terrorist organizations such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) use the rural Venezuela-Colombia border as a haven and drug trafficking corridor.
In January 2019, Maduro was sworn in for 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 the United States and fifty-seven other countries recognize Guaidó as interim president, he has so far been unable to rally sufficient support to dislodge Maduro from power. Meanwhile, as the stalemate persists, conditions in Venezuela continue to decline.