The banners all around Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, read, "I am President", in a sign of defiance by Nicolas Maduro, the embattled and highly unpopular president who today is sworn in to a new 6-year presidential term. International pressure has been mounting for Maduro to step down, both from his internal opposition, and from former allies throughout Latin America. The Trump administration has amped up sanctions against dozens of Maduro's close collaborators and cabinet members throughout the past two years. Broader economic sanctions imposed by Washington have severely crippled Venezuela's economy and brought its oil industry - the nation's lifeblood - to a practical halt.
Maduro's unlikely presidency began in shambles, after the unexpected death of Hugo Chavez in March 2013. The economy was already spiraling downward, and the country had literally been at a standstill throughout the final stages of Chavez's illness, a rare form of aggressive cancer that resisted all treatments and caused his death less than two years after his terminal diagnosis in July 2011.
Maduro's first few years in office were clouded by violent protests and widespread government repression against his detractors. The economic crisis has left former supporters and allies discontent and eager for change. But the old-guard opposition, led by corrupt politicians aligned with Washington and elite economic interests, has failed to capture a majority of support, and lacks credibility as an alternative to the current government.
Now Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro will be sworn into a second term Thursday amid international calls for him to step down and a devastating economic crisis, but with some long-time friends in attendance both from abroad and at home.
(Photo: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro)
A dozen Latin American governments and Canada in a coalition have rejected the legitimacy of Maduro’s next term, and Washington has sanctioned top officials in his government, but Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel and Bolivian President Evo Morales were in Caracas to show their support.
And while Maduro’s popularity has plunged amid scarcities, hyperinflation and rising authoritarianism that have sparked a mass emigration, supporters who receive government subsidies in shantytowns continue to back the man who took over for the late Hugo Chavez.
“It’s not the president’s fault,” said Frances Velazquez, a 43-year-old mother of two who survives on government-subsidized boxes of rice, flour and cooking oil. Velazquez blamed opportunists who drive up the prices on scarce items making life difficult for families like hers.
Others, like construction worker Ramon Bermudez, have lost hope of escaping Maduro’s rule and planned on hunkering down at home for the inauguration.
“All that’s left to do is raise your hand to heaven and ask God to help us,” said Bermudez, camped out on a Caracas sidewalk with hundreds of others waiting for gas. “There’s nothing more.”
Maduro’s second term will extend Venezuela’s socialist revolution amid widespread complaints that he has stripped Venezuela of its last vestiges of democracy, or is leaning in that direction.
Maduro denies that he’s a dictator and often blames President Donald Trump of leading an economic war against Venezuela that’s destroying the country.
“Not before, not now, nor will there ever be a dictatorship in Venezuela,” Maduro said in a Wednesday news conference.
Oil-rich Venezuela was once among Latin America’s wealthiest nations. It produced 3.5 million barrels of crude daily when Chavez took power. Output now has plummeted to less than a third of that. Critics blame years of rampant corruption and mismanagement of the state-run oil firm PDVSA.
The economic collapse has left the nation of roughly 30 million in the throes of a historic crisis.
An estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled their nation’s hyperinflation, food and medical shortages over the last two years, according to the United Nations. Those remaining live on a monthly minimum wage equal to less than $5 and falling daily.
Venezuela’s splintered opposition movement has failed to counter the socialist party’s dominance. Maduro’s government has jailed or driven into exile its most popular leaders.
The Trump administration has increased pressure on Maduro through financial sanctions, this week singling out powerful Venezuelan media magnate Raul Gorrin. U.S. banks are also banned from doing business with Venezuela, putting a financial strangle-hold on the cash-strapped country.
But, the mere need for Maduro to post banners throughout Caracas claiming he is president (#SoyElPresidente), show his unease and concern over the mounting claims that his re-election was not credible.
More on the differences between Maduro and Chavez in my New York Times OpEd here.
(with reporting from USA Today)