Venezuela crisis: How did the conflict in Venezuela start? Why is the crisis so important?

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Venezuela is experiencing a critical humanitarian crisis. Ongoing fighting with Colombia, where almost one million Venezuelan migrants have now been given protected status after being forced to flee their home nation, has also fuelled worsening tensions. Express.co.uk speaks to an international relations and politics expert about the ongoing crisis in Venezuela and why it is significant on a global scale.

An estimated 5.4 million Venezuelans have fled their home nation in recent years in a bid to escape a worsening political and economic crisis.

Inflation has soared, the national health service is on its knees and Government opponents have been imprisoned and mistreated.

Silvia Borzutzky, a teaching professor of International Relations and Politics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, said most of the ongoing corruption, economic strife and ongoing conflict can be attributed to the reign of Hugo Chavez.

She told Express.co.uk: “It is hard to put a date on the beginning of the crisis, but in the medium term it can be traced back to the election of Hugo Chavez in 1999, who promised to reduce Venezuela’s huge levels of inequality and provide Venezuelans a decent education and health care system.

“While he managed to reduce inequality during his time in power and substantially improve services to the poor communities, some of the socialist policies backfired as he failed to invest in the oil industry, the country’s main source of foreign currency earnings.

“However, despite the financial problems, he managed to maintain at least a degree of fiscal stability.”

Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999 and governed until his death in 2013.

During those decades, his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), gained control, or majority control, of many key societal institutions including the judiciary, electoral council and the Supreme Court.

Mr Chavez was succeeded by his second-in-command, Nicolás Maduro, under whose leadership the Venezuelan economy collapsed.

Professor Borzutzky said: “After Mr Chavez’s death in 2013 his successor, the former Vice-President, Nicolás Maduro obliterated political institutions and human rights and destroyed the economy of the country, which has the largest oil reserves in the world.”

But Professor Borzutzky claims most of the ongoing conflict can be attributed to the election of the current Venezuelan leader – Juan Guaidó, and how his appointment split countries around the world.

He became the interim leader in January 2019, after Mr Maduro’s second election faced allegations of fraud.

The National Assembly in Venezuela declared the election illegitimate and opposition leader Mr Guaidó announced he would assume office as interim president until free and fair elections could be held.

Mr Guaidó was quickly recognised as an interim leader by the USA, Canada, most of the EU, but his ousted predecessor retained support from several countries including China, Cuba, Russia and Turkey.

Professor Borzutzky told Express.co.uk: “The most severe political impasse, and the current crisis, began after Juan Guaidó, the National Assembly president, claimed he was taking power as interim president of Venezuela in January 2019.

“However, he was not able to do it despite US support.

“As of April 2021, Maduro controls all institutions.

“Maduro supporters won two-thirds of seats to the National Assembly in elections held on December 6, which were boycotted by most of the opposition parties and in which less than one-third of registered voters participated.”

She added: “Venezuelans today suffer from brutal policing practices, poor prison conditions, impunity for human rights violations, lack of judicial independence, and harassment of human rights defenders and independent media.

“In brief, Venezuela has been at a political impasse since Juan Guaidó, the National Assembly president, claimed he was taking power as interim president of Venezuela in January 2019.

“In September 2020, a fact-finding mission appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) found that the Government was responsible for atrocities that they believed amounted to crimes against humanity, including extrajudicial executions and short-term forced disappearances and have jailed opponents, prosecuted civilians in military courts, tortured detainees, and cracked down on protesters.”

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The ongoing and worsening humanitarian crisis is the most significant reason why the country is a key consideration on the geopolitical stage.

Professor Borzutzky said: “There are now, in 2021, an estimated 5.4 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants, up from 0.7 million in 2015.

“Colombia is the most affected country as it has already taken about 1.7 million refugees.

“Other countries affected are Peru, which has taken about one million refugees, Chile about half a million and the U. about 375,000 people.

“In brief, according to the UN Human Rights Commission, there are 5.4 million refugees and migrants from Venezuela worldwide.

“There are also over 800,000 asylum-seekers from Venezuela worldwide, and about 2.5 million living under other legal forms of stay in the Americas.”

The exodus of Venezuelans to neighbouring countries puts great strain on regional Governments and aid groups to support these refugees and asylum seekers, worsening poverty rates and pressure on communities.

According to a recent survey, 96 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty, the highest proportion in Latin America.

The professor added: “The combination of poor economic management, coupled with international sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic—have fuelled a devastating humanitarian crisis, with severe shortages of basic goods such as food, drinking water, gasoline, and medical supplies.”

The international relations expert added she fears this could worsen in, amid, and after the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The most recent data from the World Health Organization indicates there have been a total of 184,595 Covid cases in the country since the pandemic began, of which 1,925 people have died.

However, many experts including Professor Borzutzky claim this is likely to be a massive underestimate given how “unreliable” data is from this region.

She said: “According to the IMF Venezuela is in a state of economic free fall and cannot confront a post-pandemic world alone.

“The question for International Financial Organizations and donor countries is do you allow the free fall to continue, or you provide aid to avoid a total economic collapse?”

Professor Borzutzky added: “It is important to note that according to the IMF, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit Venezuela hard, straining the already collapsed health system.

“Hospitals and clinics lack basic functioning amenities such as running water, power, and soap.

“Health workers are not provided with personal protective equipment.

“Severe shortage of gasoline and strict quarantine rules have shrunk the domestic commercial activity even more than what it was before the pandemic.

“Venezuela lacks resilient infrastructure and is clearly ill-equipped for an effective COVID-19 national response.”

But it is not only the humanitarian crisis which is causing issues in the country – ongoing border fighting with Colombia is also causing loss of lives and further displacement.

Venezuela has now created a special military unit for an area on its border with Colombia which has been the centre of clashes between troops and illegal armed groups since March.

General Vladimir Padrino said a temporary unit called an Integrated Operational Defense Zone, or ZODI, would operate in several municipalities of Apure state, where the clashes have taken place.

He said: “We are not going to allow any type of force, be it conventional, irregular, criminal, drug trafficker, etcetera, to come to Venezuelan territory to commit crimes.”

Speaking about the armed conflict, Professor Borzutzky said: “In addition to the humanitarian crisis there, the Colombia-Venezuela border is a perennial powder keg, but recent events have made the situation worse.

“Fighting between the Venezuelan military and a non-state armed group that started in March has left at least 17 people dead, dozens injured, and more than 5,000 displaced.

“In April 2021 Mr Maduro announced that he would seek emergency assistance from the United Nations to defuse landmines planted by insurgents and drug traffickers in Venezuela’s Apure region along the frontier.

“This follows on the heels of a request from a coalition of civil society organizations to designate a UN special envoy to help put an end to hostilities.”

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