By Lucas Koerner – VA Editorial Board
Writing for the Venezuelanalysis team, Lucas Koerner examines the (un)constitutionality of Juan Guaido’s claim to power. He critically dissects the claims echoed by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and others disputing the legality and legitimacy of the Maduro government. This article was first published in the excellent Caracas-based web site Venezuelanalysis.com.
There’s been a lot misinformation in the international media about whether what is happening in Venezuela is a brazen US-led power grab or a constitutional transfer of power aided by the international community.
On January 23, National Assembly President Juan Guaido, who was virtually unknown in Venezuela before being selected for the legislative post on January 5, swore himself in as “interim president” of the South American country and was immediately recognized by Washington and its allies.
Guaido claims that his new self-ascribed job title is fully in keeping with Article 233 of Venezuela’s 1999 constitution. But is this the case?
An open and shut case
Article 233 of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela specifies that an “absolute vacuum of power” occurs in the following circumstances: the president’s death, resignation, impeachment by the Supreme Court, “permanent physical or mental incapacity” certified by a medical expert designated by the Supreme Court and approved by the National Assembly, “abandonment of post” declared by the National Assembly, or recall by popular referendum.
Guaido’s claim to the presidency rests on the second to last of these conditions, namely the argument that Nicolas Maduro has failed to fulfill his constitutional responsibilities, thereby abandoning his post. Article 236 outlines in detail the duties of the president, which include everything from conducting international relations and leading the armed forces to granting pardons and convoking referenda.
The opposition may not like Maduro for a variety of reasons, but a cursory glance at the head of state’s Twitter feed will reveal that he has hardly abandoned his presidential functions. That is, he has not holed himself up in Miraflores presidential palace playing Call of Duty in lieu of showing up for work.
Now even if Maduro were to develop a debilitating video game addiction, this would not necessarily mean that his powers would pass to the president of the National Assembly.
Article 233 clearly specifies that in the event of an “absolute power vacuum” of any of the types mentioned above occuring within the first four years of his or her six-year mandate, the president shall be succeeded by the vice president. This is what happened after President Hugo Chavez’s death on March 5, 2013, when Nicolas Maduro took over as acting president and new elections were called within 30 days. If the above scenario occurs in the last two years of the elected term, the vice president is sworn in and finishes the mandate. Only in the case of a power vacuum occurring between presidential elections and the president-elect’s inauguration will the president of the National Assembly temporarily take office.
Therefore, even if we accept the opposition’s rather dubious claim that recently sworn-in Maduro has abandoned his post, it would be Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, not Guaido, who would take office.
In the interest of fairness, let’s concede for a moment that Juan Guaido is the legitimate “interim president” of Venezuela. Why then has he yet to call new presidential elections within 30 days as explicitly specified by Article 233?
Not only has Guaido failed to call new elections, but his National Assembly approved a law on February 5, titled “Democratic Transition Statute,” which allows the un-elected politician to remain in power for a “maximum period of twelve (12) months” in the case of the “technical impossibility” of holding them sooner.
Article 233 makes absolutely no mention of “technical conditions,” as an excuse for delaying elections, and the Venezuelan opposition certainly had no “technical” issues impeding them from holding their illegal July 14, 2017 plebiscite amid a violent anti-government insurrection.
The only conclusion is that Guaido is playing it fast and loose with the Bolivarian Constitution to justify a dictatorship.
Was Maduro legitimately elected?
Constitutional exegesis aside, the crux of the opposition’s argument is that Nicolas Maduro’s May 20, 2018 reelection was mired in “fraud” and hence his swearing-in “illegitimate,” creating a power vacuum.
This contention has been taken up by the mainstream media as an article of faith and repeated ad nauseam.
For corporate journalists, it doesn’t appear to matter that Maduro was re-elected with 6.2 million votes, amounting to around 31 percent of eligible voters, which, as Joe Emersberger notes, is average among US presidents. For instance, Barack Obama received 31 percent in 2008 and 28 percent in 2012, while Trump was elected with just 26 percent in 2016, failing to win the popular vote.
Nor does the Western pundit class seem to care that Maduro won with exactly the same electoral system with which the opposition scored its landslide parliamentary victory in 2015, from which Juan Guaido purports to derive his legitimacy.
Indeed, the fact that Maduro was re-elected cleanly, as verified by reports from four different in independent international monitoring missions, is non-consequential, given that Washington preemptively refused to recognize the results of the election more than 90 days ahead of time in support of the main opposition parties’ boycott.
But the US did not stop there. The Trump administration went as far as to threaten to sanction opposition candidate Henri Falcon for daring to defy the boycott, while the major anti-government parties sabotaged his candidacy by actively urging abstention and falsely suggesting that the former governor was in league with Maduro. Somehow this egregious interference in another sovereign country’s electoral process was completely ignored by a Western media lobotomized by Russia-gate hysteria.
All this is quite ironic in light of the fact that the right-wing opposition took to the streets in deadly protests in 2017 demanding early presidential elections with full backing from Washington.
However, after elections were brought forward to April 2018 in the context of internationally-mediated negotiations in the Dominican Republic, the opposition turned around and reportedly rejected a preliminary agreementreached with the government, abandoning further talks. A subsequent deal to push elections back to May 20 brought a faction of the opposition led by Falcon on board, to the fury of hardline parties close to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who issued repeated calls for a military coup alongside other top US officials.
There is little doubt that had the opposition united behind Falcon, he would have stood a very good chance of beating Maduro, whose popularity has plummeted amid the severe economic crisis that has gripped the country for four years. Why then did the US and its local clients opt for a boycott?
Radical regime change
On April 11, 2002, the Venezuelan opposition with the support of sections of the military staged a coup ousting democratically elected President Hugo Chavez. Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce President Pedro Carmona swore himself in as “interim president” and proceeded to dissolve the National Assembly, the new constitution and the courts. Carmona was recognized by the Bush administration and Spain’s Aznar government, while the New York Times glowingly endorsed him as a “respected business leader.” In fact, it was unrepentant war criminal Elliott Abrams, recently resurrected as Trump’s “special envoy to Venezuela,” who gave the green light to the coup plotters. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund, from whom Guaido is considering soliciting financing, rushed to offer loans to the new coup regime.
Between 50 and 60 anti-coup protesters were gunned down in the streets by the infamous Metropolitan Police during the Venezuelan opposition’s short-lived coup regime. The Cuban embassy was besieged, while future opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles alongside Guaido’s political mentor, former Chacao Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, carried out what they euphemistically called a “citizen’s arrest,” in fact a kidnapping, of President Chavez’s interior minister, Ramón Rodriguez Chacin.
Contrary to mainstream media depictions, the Carmona regime is the only dictatorship Venezuela has had over the last two decades. Moreover, any parallels between 2002 and today are hardly coincidental. Like in 2002, the current US-backed coup seeks to completely dismantle Venezuela’s Bolivarian institutional framework of expanded political, social, and economic rights, but this time in the name of the constitution they previously dissolved. There is no clearer evidence than Guaido’s publicly disclosed plans to introduce major privatizations in Venezuela’s oil sector, whose nationalization formed the bedrock of the Bolivarian anti-imperialist project. Nevertheless, as we saw in 2002, the opposition will not stop there, for it is driven by the single-minded desire to eliminate Chavismo as a mass political force and thus restore the “exceptional” pre-Chavez liberal democracy that only ever existed in the imagination of the upper middle class white elite. The recent burning alive of a man perceived to be Chavista in Merida, like the lynchings we saw during the 2017 opposition protests, is just one manifestation of this virulent anti-poor hatred.
In short, the international left has a duty to halt the US-backed coup underway in Venezuela. Only through sustained, popular opposition to US imperialism can we avoid a return to the dark age of Washington-sponsored dictatorships and dirty wars which men like Elliott Abrams enthusiastically promoted across the hemisphere in the 1970s and ‘80s. The fate of democracy in Venezuela, and worldwide, hangs in the balance.
This article represents the position of the VA editorial board with regard to opposition leader Juan Guaido's self-proclamation as "interim president" of Venezuela on January 23.