A rival to Venezuela‘s president has taken the unusual step of declaring himself interim president — and he’s received the backing of the United States, Canada and many Latin American countries.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido was sworn in Wednesday as Venezuelans rallied in the streets to protest the regime of socialist president Nicolás Maduro and demand he step down.
It’s the latest development in an escalating crisis in the country, in which democratic freedoms have eroded against the backdrop of an economic collapse.
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Three million people have fled Venezuela since 2015. For those that remain, food and medicine are in short supply and inflation is projected to hit an unfathomable 10 million per cent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The crisis in Venezuela is unparalleled in recent history in the Americas, said Nicolás Saldías, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and researcher at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C..
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People have taken to the streets, he said, because they are “literally unable to live.”
Here’s a closer look at what’s happening in Venezuela — and how Canada fits into the picture.
Who are Juan Guaido and Nicolas Maduro?
Guaido is the head of Venezuela’s opposition-run congress and an opponent of Maduro.
Maduro, the successor to socialist leader Hugo Chavez, started a second presidential term on Jan. 10 following a May election that was dismissed as illegitimate and fraudulent by the opposition and many foreign powers.
In a statement rejecting Maduro’s mandate earlier this month, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland called Venezuela’s military-backed regime a dictatorship and imposed sanctions on 70 individuals associated with Maduro.
Until somewhat recently, Guaido was not well known in Venezuelan politics — the 35-year-old industrial engineer was only elected to the National Assembly in 2015.
Is Juan Guaido really Venezuela’s new president?
Guaido swore himself in as president Wednesday and promised to create a transitional government to alleviate hyperinflation in the economy.
Guaido’s declaration brings Venezuela into new territory, as he will be attempting to hold power without having control over crucial state institutions, or thus far, the support of the military.
“While it’s true that Guaido has been recognized internationally, the real power of the state is still in the hands of Nicolás Maduro,” Ronal Rodriguez, a political science professor who focuses on Venezuela at Rosario University in Bogota, told Reuters.
And even if Guaido is eventually recognized as the leader within Venezuela, he won’t serve as president in a traditional sense.
“His only mandate is to initiate the process of democratic transition,” Saldías said.
How have other nations responded?
In 2017, Canada joined a group established to apply pressure on the Maduro government in the wake of the economic and humanitarian crisis.
On Wednesday, the so-called Lima Group of countries, which includes Brazil and Argentina, came out in support of Guaido. Mexico was the sole member state to not sign the statement.
The United States has also endorsed Guaido and called on Maduro to resign.
Maduro responded to the pressure by attempting to sever diplomatic ties with the U.S. and order American diplomats out of the country within three days.
He called the U.S. an imperialist government, mentioning a list of past military coups that were backed by the U.S. including Guatemala, Chile and Brazil.
“Don’t trust the gringos,” he told supporters at a counter-rally Wednesday.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fired back, saying that since the U.S. doesn’t recognize Maduro as president, it wouldn’t be sending its diplomats home.
Citing anonymous sources, Reuters is reporting that U.S. President Donald Trump is considering imposing sanctions on Venezuelan oil as part of the country’s response.
Saldías said if that were to occur, Venezuela would lose its largest source of export income, likely exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.
“The government will just run out of money, effectively,” he said.
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Saldías said that it speaks volumes that neighbouring countries are refusing to recognize Maduro as president.
“If this was only Canada and United States,” he said, “it wouldn’t register as loudly.”
“It’s difficult for the Maduro regime to say that this is just an American plot,” he said. “This is not. This is truly a regional rejection of the regime and the fraudulent election of 2018.”
Who is standing by Maduro?
Maduro does have some allies close to home, however, including Bolivian President Evo Morales, who expressed his support on Twitter.
“Our solidarity with the Venezuelan people and Nicolás Maduro, in these decisive hours when the claws of imperialism are once again trying to deal a death blow on democracy and self-determination on the peoples of South America,” he said.
Nicaragua and Uruguay have also not joined the Lima Group.
China, which has provided billions in loans and aid to Venezuela, called on the U.S. not to interfere in the country’s politics.
Another longstanding ally, Russia, has also weighed in. One official described the turn of events as an attempted coup that was backed by the U.S..
Turkey, Iran and Syria have also rallied around Maduro’s leadership.
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What does Venezuela’s crisis mean for the region and beyond?
Venezuela’s crisis has been felt far beyond its borders.
The United Nations estimates that 5,500 Venezuelans are leaving the country each day. More than a million have ended up in neighbouring Colombia, with another 500,000 in Peru.
Panama, a country with a population smaller than the Greater Toronto Area, is hosting 94,000 Venezuelans.
Even if Maduro was no longer in the picture, Saldías said, more are expected to flee Venezuela, as the country’s problems will take years to address.
Saldías said that if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau means what he says about welcoming refugees, Canada could do much more for Venezuelans.
Federal government statistics show that from 2016 to September of last year, 1,013 people who fled to Canada from Venezuela were granted asylum, and 321 refugee claims were rejected.
Those numbers, however, don’t include any potential refugees who were sponsored privately or referred from the United Nations Refugee Agency.
— With files from the Associated Press and Reuters