For the first time since Nicolas Maduro’s arrival in power in 2013, there is a solid legal basis for foreign governments to demand that he step down. The US, Canada and most of Latin America have seized the moment, recognising Juan Guaido as interim president. Last Friday Britain joined them. The rest of the EU hasn’t yet, but should.
The results of Maduro’s misrule are by now familiar. GDP has halved on his watch. Inflation is running at a million per cent. A tenth of the population is leaving or has left. The poorest of those staying behind – in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves – are giving up young children whom they cannot feed.
Venezuela’s economic plight is desperate, but that is not why now is the time for Maduro to confront reality. People power is. On January 10 he lost any claim to legitimacy by swearing himself in for a second presidential term on the basis of a blatantly rigged election. Guaido, by contrast, is the freely-elected president of Venezuela’s national assembly. He has been sworn in as interim president, with the promise of fresh elections, using powers granted him by the constitution for just this sort of emergency.
Maduro calls him a stooge of “gringos” in Washington. If ordinary Venezuelans agreed, the old guard would be safe. Instead they have poured on to the streets of Caracas and other major cities in their tens of thousands in support of the youthful Guaido, whose politics as far as anyone can tell are centrist and whose main achievement has been to unite the opposition around him.
There have been pro-Maduro rallies, but they are dwarfed by crowds demanding change – crowds swollen by the very “Chavistas” who swept Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez, to power in 1999.
That was the start of a socialist revolution whose legacy in the end is corruption, penury and national humiliation.
The army high command has been bought off with oil money and for now is standing with Maduro. So is Vladimir Putin, in his customary role talking up the wrong side of history. He has attacked other leaders for interfering in Venezuela’s internal affairs, and broken his own rule by flying in squads of military “contractors” to shore up Maduro’s personal security.
There are the makings of another wearying showdown between Washington and Moscow in the UN. That would be better than a military clash, but a distraction from the international community’s priority, which should be to call time on Maduro and end the humanitarian disaster he has inflicted on his country.
So far the EU has limited itself to a demand that Maduro announce fresh elections by next weekend. That is not unlike entrusting the future of Romania to Ceaucescu in the closing months of 1989. Maduro’s departure may take longer and should be sought with amnesties, not bloodshed, but his time is past.