The Venezuelan Crisis: A Proxy Conflict?

By Zoe Murray

In recent years, Venezuela has faced shortages, hectic inflation, and political repression; yet, the United States, Russia and other foreign powers have chosen now to pay acute attention. Following a contested presidential election and swearing in of existing President Nicolás Maduro, the U.S. backed opposition-leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate interim leader. Consequently, many nations are following suit and are beginning to take sides on who currently rules the torn country. This signals a worrying diplomatic and international relations crisis. The U.S. must not fall back upon the historical interventions made in Latin America with the justification of promoting democracy and combating communism. Rather, the U.S. and all other global powers should ensure depoliticized humanitarian aid to the Venezuelans affected and should demand immediate democratic elections without jeopardizing the autonomy and sovereignty of the country.

An estimated 3 million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries and inflation is 1.3 million percent. In addition, since Maduro took power in 2014, oil production has been on the decline with a corresponding decline of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth. GDP growth has been more than a striking negative 15 per cent since 2016 [1]. The population that remains in the country is increasingly impoverished since Maduro took office: today more than 80 per cent live in poverty and more than 50 per cent live in extreme poverty[2]. There are acute food and medicine shortages and Venezuelans lost an average weight of 24 pounds in 2017 alone[3].

The political crisis largely began in 2015 after elections to the National Assembly proved unfavorable to President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s acting president since 2013 following the death of Hugo Chavez. The Maduro-controlled Supreme Court subsequently created an entirely new legislature--the Constituent Assembly--and filled it with Maduro supporters. Furthermore, Maduro has continually imprisoned political dissidents leading to the May 2018 election in which many opposition candidates protested the elections or were currently in jail. Juan Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly, quickly declared himself interim President following the swearing in of Maduro in January. While the former calls upon the international community for aid, the latter insists upon the legitimacy of the May election and accuses the U.S. of imperial intervention. The Venezuelan public is largely in support of Juan Guaidó, with one Datanalisis poll finding 80% in favor [2], even as supporters of both Maduro and Guaidó continue to flood the streets.

The power struggle between Guaidó and Maduro will largely be determined by the support of the military, bar the further foreign military interference of other nations. Indeed, Cuba already has intelligence officers aiding the regime in forcibly assuring support from its armed forces. Maduro currently has this continued backing, but some military leaders are defecting. Like the general population, the military have been living under destitute conditions and the Maduro regime has previously prevented many coup attempts. In response, the National Assembly recently has offered amnesty to members of the armed forces who defect. It seems Maduro, who is facing dwindling international revenue and support, will not be able to either pay off nor imprison his armed forces as conditions worsen. The U.S. has taken advantage of this volatility to further its intervention efforts by encouraging military defections. The U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton stated in a tweet on February 6 that his government will offer exemptions to sanctions should senior military officers support the interim president [5]. In a nod to previous U.S.-backed coups in Latin America, the U.S. will undermine Venezuela’s stability and independence if it continues to directly target the armed forces.

The exploitation of Venezuela’s military instability is only one component of the U.S. strategy. In its latest and largest sanctions to the country yet, the U.S. froze billions of dollars of assets of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company. As the U.S. is the primary buyer of Venezuelan oil, the asset freeze will place enormous pressure on Maduro. Oil exports account for 25% of GDP and 97% of foreign exchange [4]; as such, these sanctions will bankrupt the state. But in bankrupting the state and preventing it from importing enough food, so the U.S. also harms Venezuelans who already struggle in the existing shortages. In an attempt to address this concern, the U.S. has offered food and supplies to opposition leader Guaidó; this aid has had the opposite effect as President Maduro has rejected Western aid and has closed his borders. To this end, the U.S. using food as a political tool to overthrow the regime is akin to Maduro’s previous vote-buying with food. Imposing outside intervention--whether in the form of  military interference, sanctions, aid, or all of the above--without warrant by the country’s own citizens will directly undermine the autonomy of Venezuela. In order for Venezuela to have successful long-term security, the country must determine its own outcome without the involvement of foreign states like the United States.

However, the U.S. is not the only foreign state that threatens Venezuela’s sovereignty. Russia, China, and Cuba have forcibly backed the Maduro regime. On the other hand,  many E.U. and large Latin American countries support Guaidó as interim president until a new democratic election can be held. In an alarmingly blunt move, President Trump has stated explicitly that U.S. troops remain an option. Unsanctioned U.S. military presence would regress not only Venezuela, but all foreign relations in the region. Meanwhile, Russia has pledged its full support behind the administration formerly regarded as socialist and seems keen to utilize the country as physical grounds for U.S. confrontation. Conclusively, in the midst of the power grab between Maduro and Guaidó, foreign interference threatens to turn the crisis into a proxy war.

International actors must take heed to forbid this growing bipolarization between the U.S. and Russia from becoming an acute international crisis. De-escalation would serve all those involved--most importantly Venezuelans. The country must not turn into yet another battleground for Cold War powers, as reminiscent as the situation may seem to Nicaragua, Cuba and Chile. In order to de-escalate, Russia and the U.S. must take two steps back, deny any military involvement whatsoever, and avoid politicizing the situation further. Russia, China, the U.S., and European nations would benefit from consulting each other and generating a united strategy to ensure free elections and humanitarian aid. And most importantly, Nicolas Maduro must immediately step down and return the country to legitimate democracy and to the rule of law.

Zoe Murray is a senior studying Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara

[1]BBC News, “Venezuela: All You Need to Know About the Crisis in Five Charts”, 4 February 2019.

[2] The Economist, “Venezuela: A Chance, At Last, For Liberation”, 4 February 2019.

[3] Loes Witschge, Alia Chughtai, “Venezuela's Crisis in Numbers”, 13 Sep 2018,

[4] Al Jazeera World News, “Can the U.S. Force Maduro to Step Down?”, Al Jazeera Video, 5 February 2019,

[5] Bolton, John, Twitter Post, 6 February 2019, 12:06 PM,

[6]  Global News Podcast, “Venezuela Civil War Threat ‘An Invention’”, BBC World Service, Podcast audio, 4 February 2019.

[7] Global News Podcast, “Venezuela: Several EU States Recognise Guaidó as President” BBC World Service, Podcast audio, 4 February 2019.

[8] Global News Podcast, “US Mobilises Aid for Venezuela”, BBC World Service, Podcast audio, 3 February 2019.