A Short, Simple Primer on What’s Happening in Venezuela

Opposition supporters rallied on Wednesday in Caracas, Venezuela.

Opposition supporters rallied on Wednesday in Caracas, Venezuela. Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

If you are wondering why Venezuela is back on the front pages, why the Trump administration is making such a big fuss about it, and why observers seem so anxious about the country’s political crisis, then this primer is for you.
Why is Venezuela in the news right now?
There are three immediate reasons, all related to a political crisis that has been building in the country for years. 
First, popular protests against the government have been growing significantly in size. There’s increasing chaos in the streets as state security forces (but not the military, which is important for reasons we’ll discuss in a bit) crack down.
Second, an opposition lawmaker named Juan Guaidó declared the current government illegitimate and announced that he would be willing to lead a caretaker government. On its own, Mr. Guaidó’s statement can’t force any real change. But it has heightened speculation that outside actors like the military could push out the government.
Third, the United States and several other governments in the Western Hemisphere have announced that they consider Mr. Guaidó to be Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
What is Venezuela’s crisis?
The short version: Venezuela’s government has overseen the destruction of its democracy and its economy. Public outrage is coming to a head.
Twenty years ago, Venezuela was Latin America’s richest country and its longest-running democracy.
Today, it is nearly a failed state. Runaway inflation has plunged much of the country into desperate poverty. Food and drug shortages are widespread. Public order is collapsing and crime rising. As many as two million Venezuelans have fled the country, many as refugees.
Public anger is over more than corruption and mismanagement. The government is aggressively consolidating power and undermining democratic institutions, leaving Venezuelans without meaningful avenues for challenging or changing their leadership. So, many are taking to the streets to try to force change.
Why are things coming to a head now?
The most immediate trigger was the inauguration ceremony this month for President Nicolás Maduro. He won reelection in May in a vote that has been criticized as rigged.
Since that vote, opposition figures and foreign governments, including many in Latin America, have called Mr. Maduro’s leadership illegitimate. Protesters came out after Mr. Maduro’s inauguration to send the same message, hoping to pressure him to step down.
But in many ways, this is just the latest incremental step in a crisis that has been getting steadily worse for years.
How did things in Venezuela get so bad?
We wrote a full-length explainer last year recounting Venezuela’s collapse.
The shorter version starts not long after a left-wing populist named Hugo Chávez led a failed military coup in 1992, reflecting popular discontent with the political establishment. Mr. Chávez won the presidency in a 1998 election.
Initially, Mr. Chávez implemented popular changes to fight corruption and poverty. While Mr. Chávez was not wrong to see his country’s political and business establishments as riven with cronyism and graft, he took them on with presidential decrees that consolidated power for himself.
Things took a turn in 2002, when an economic downturn helped prompt antigovernment protests. When Mr. Chávez ordered the military to restore order, it instead imprisoned him and imposed an interim leader. The coup leaders quickly backed down, but Mr. Chávez returned to power apparently paranoid and bent on rooting out what he saw as enemies within.
From then until his death in 2013, Mr. Chávez waged war on Venezuelan institutions and civil society, hollowing out his country’s democracy. He turned to cronyism and handouts to maintain support among his supporters and crucial allies like the military.
Mr. Maduro, his vice president, took over after Mr. Chávez’s death. He was a weaker leader and therefore relied far more on handouts at a time when the government had even less money.
So Mr. Maduro simply printed more money. This drove up inflation, making basic goods unaffordable, so he instituted price controls and fixed the exchange rate. This caused shortages and made many imports prohibitively expensive. Businesses shut down. Food and medicine became scarce.
This cycle sent many Venezuelans into poverty. Many members of the policy and military, who were also struggling to feed their families, turned to black marketeering. Gangs took control of city streets and the murder rate spiked to become one of the world’s highest.
Can I blame Venezuela’s crisis on socialism and/or Western imperialism?
That is a popular approach for many Americans (as well as Mexicans, Brazilians and other Latin Americans), who have often portrayed Venezuela’s implosion as proof that their political adversaries at home are dangerous threats.
Certainly, Mr. Chávez was a dedicated leftist who spent heavily on social programs and who nationalized much of the economy, which played into his country’s crises. It’s also true that the United States opposed his rule and sought to isolate his influence in Latin America, a policy that was seen by many in the region as continuing decades of imperial meddling.
But most experts on Venezuela or on the backsliding of democracies reject these explanations. Rather, they see Venezuela’s crisis as having emerged from factors that can exist in any democracy, and are worsening in democracies worldwide: political polarization, distrust in institutions, desire for a strong leader to impose order.
And experts put particular focus on Mr. Chávez’s anti-establishment, strongman tendencies — something that is not particular to left- or right-wing leaders. You can read our story here on why populist leaders like Mr. Chávez, regardless of their ideologies or intentions, often steer democracies toward authoritarianism.
Does it matter that the United States recognized the opposition lawmaker as Venezuela’s legitimate leader?
Maybe, but probably not by any significant degree.
There is some research suggesting that a government becomes more likely to fall if people in that country view the leader as having lost international legitimacy. And Washington’s recognition of Mr. Guaidó, the opposition figure, as the country’s legitimate president may give him access to some Venezuelan assets that had been frozen in the United States.
Still, it was already crystal clear that President Trump’s government opposed Mr. Maduro and wanted him out, so this is not a major shift. The same goes for other Latin American countries that have recognized Mr. Guaidó.
Despite some American officials hinting at a willingness to consider military action to bring down Mr. Maduro, there is little reason to believe the whispers. Such an intervention would take months to execute and has no real support in the American military or electorate or in Congress. It is not even clear what military action would be meant to accomplish or how it would do this, and it would virtually guarantee a major backlash internationally and within Venezuela.
What will happen next?
There are two sets of actors who could force Mr. Maduro to step down.
The first includes members of Mr. Maduro’s own government, though the crisis has grown so bad that many of them probably fear prison or worse should they lose power. And they would lose their access to handouts, sending them into the same bread lines as everyone else.
The second contains members of the Venezuelan military, which Mr. Maduro has, perhaps wisely, avoided ordering to crack down on protesters. Some low-level officers have moved against Mr. Maduro, but the rest have remained loyal. The military benefits tremendously from the status quo; Mr. Maduro has allowed them take control of black marketeering and some trade in natural resources.
If neither group removes Mr. Maduro and he refuses to step down, it is very hard to say what will happen. History provides few obvious parallels.
On one hand, with the situation spiraling out of control, it feels impossible that the status quo could continue. On the other, the same could have been said one, two or even three years ago, and yet Venezuela has continued its steady, tragic decline.