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Mar 01 2019

Is oil a blessing or a curse for Venezuela?

Oil and gas reserves are a blessing for countries that use it properly - Norway is the best example. But some countries run into trouble because of their rich oil reserves, which become a curse. One may wonder whether Venezuela is now suffering from this curse. 

A conflicting interpretation of the Venezuelan constitution is used by two political rivals as justification for their claim to be president.

Social tensions and domestic disturbances in Venezuela did not start with Nicolas Maduro’s election as president in 2013. When his predecessor Hugo Chavez attempted to introduce reforms to shake the foundations of the Venezuelan society by unnecessarily antagonising its wealthier segments, in 2002 they incited the army to arrest the president and detain him in a military barracks. They replaced Chavez with a rich businessman, Pedro Carmona, the CEO of a private company called Venezuela Al Dia. The people reacted angrily and Chavez had to be released two days later and returned to his post. 

When Chavez passed away in 2013, Maduro became president as his designated successor. Immediately after consolidating his position as president, he began to monopolise power. 

One of his early initiatives was to appoint judges close to members of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. It soon became apparent these appointments were made for a reason. This court, using an unorthodox method of citing electoral irregularities, stripped three opposition parliamentarians of their seats with a view to putting an end to the qualified opposition majority in parliament. If these members of the parliament had stayed in their seats, the qualified majority could have challenged Maduro.

The president, with a view to further consolidating his grip on power, called for the election of a National Constituent Assembly to amend the Chavez-era constitution of 1999. The opposition, aware of Maduro’s intentions, boycotted the election and the government coalition won almost all seats of the Constituent Assembly. This assembly declared itself to be the executive branch of the state with supreme power in Venezuela. It banned the National Assembly, which was dominated by the opposition to Maduro, from carrying out its legislative functions. 

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech in Caracas on February 8, 2018. (Photo by JUAN BARRETO / AFP)
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech in Caracas on February 8, 2018. (Photo by JUAN BARRETO / AFP)

Maduro ordered early elections in May 2018, but before that, he banned major opposition parties from participating in the polls. The Venezuelan opposition said the elections were invalid because of these anti-democratic practices. 

The 1999 Constitution of Venezuela provides in Article 233, using convoluted phraseology, that if the National Assembly duly declares that the president should abandon his position, the presidency shall be considered vacant. 

Based on these provisions of the constitution, the National Assembly last month claimed that the de facto dictatorship meant that there was no democratic leader, therefore, Maduro’s post had to be considered vacant. This is how Juan Guaido, the speaker of the National Assembly, was declared interim president for 30 days until democratic elections are held.

There are two more articles in the constitution that may push Venezuela into further chaos. Article 333 calls for citizens to restore and enforce the constitution if its provisions are not implemented. Article 350 calls for citizens to disown any regime, legislation or authority that violates democratic values. Of course, this is a democratic right, but also an open invitation to chaos in the country. 

The world is now divided between supporters and opponents to Maduro with some similarity to the division between the Eastern and Western blocks during the Cold War era. If the assessment of Thierry Meyssan from the Voltaire Institute proves to be right, the ultimate goal of the disturbances in Venezuela is neither to promote Maduro nor Guaido, but to weaken the state structure in the country, like the United States achieved during the Arab spring unrest.

It is a pity that a country that possesses the biggest oil reserves in the world is impoverished to such an extent that people are leaving it to settle abroad. Inflation is skyrocketing. Political instability and uncertainty are rampant. Nobody can claim that the country is properly governed.

The Venezuelan presidential crisis is a schoolbook example that demonstrates once more that democracy is not only about ballot boxes.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.