Venezuela Crisis Unleashes Old And New Fears In Latin America

Clashes in Caracas on Jan. 23
Clashes in Caracas on Jan. 23
Irene Caselli

The sudden political crisis in Venezuela has major reverberations across Latin America and the world. Both old and new dividing lines in the region have emerged since Juan Guaidó, the leader of Venezuela's National Assembly, declared himself the country's acting president in defiance of Nicolás Maduro, who has been ruling the country since 2013.

In a continent where the United States backed coups in the 1960s and 1970s, Donald Trump's lightning-fast endorsement of Guaidó via Twitter was not taken lightly. Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua, which together with China, Russia, Turkey and Iran quickly supported Maduro, see the Maduro administration as the only possible ally in the region at a time when Latin America is moving away from 21st-century socialism.

Beyond the halls of diplomacy is the pressing issue of refugees.

On the other side, backing Guaidó, stand most of the other Latin American countries. In the middle are Uruguay and Mexico, the latter led by left-leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who is trying to distance himself from his predecessors; they have not recognized Guaidó, but are calling for dialogue.

Beyond the halls of diplomacy is the pressing issue of refugees. According to the UN Refugee Agency, some 3 milllion Venezuelans have left the country in the face of a severe economic crisis. Most have relocated to neighboring countries: Colombia is the top recipient with one million migrants and Brazil's northern regions are also struggling to integrate the fleeing Venezuelans. A strong stance against Maduro's government would help Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Iván Duque in Colombia show their electoral basis that they are doing their utmost to address the refugee issue.

These dividing lines are reflected in the front pages of newspapers around the region.

Most left-leaning media have referred to Guaidó"s declaration of power, and its subsequent approval from Trump and Latin American leaders, as an attempted coup in Venezuela.

"Dialogue is the way forward, not intervention," according to Pagina12 in Argentina.

"Venezuela is not alone, mobilized people face a coup," read the title of Cambio, a state-funded newspaper in Bolivia, using one of President Evo Morales's tweets on the front page.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the Chilean business magazine AméricaEconomía endorsed Guaidó in an editorial: "All this sounds reasonable if you think about the tainted 2018 presidential election that gave Maduro a second presidential term of six years, which he has just begun. And it sounds more than reasonable if you think about everything that the Venezuelan people have had to suffer and continue to suffer, plunged into a humanitarian crisis of food and medicine shortages that has lasted more than two years."

In Colombia, El Espectador referred to Maduro as a dictator and usurper, backing Guaidó"s actions. "Venezuela took a historic step for the constitutional return to the democratic path," said the Bogota daily in an editorial.

Uruguayan papers have been cautious, reflecting the government's neutral stance. "A rift that is difficult to overcome," was one El Observador headline, highlighting Maduro's interest in Uruguay's proposal for dialogue.

Whatever happens next, it's clear that the rest of the continent will be watching closely. This is best summarized by Chilean-Brazilian philosopher Vladimir Safatle in his piece for Brazil's Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper: "Right now, Venezuela is on the verge of civil war or international intervention. Far from being merely the result of its internal conflicts, the dramatic destiny of this oil-exporting country acts as a sort of magnifying glass for the difficult situations of Latin American politics. Venezuela has become a kind of ghost in which everyone sees their fears and desires."

The rest of the continent will be watching closely.

"In fact, it clearly exposes the collapse of both a certain experience of the left on the continent and its counterparts on the right," Safatle writes.

He concludes with a grim warning: "The chances of a real catastrophe of unpredictable proportions are enormous. The worst of them would undoubtedly be the resurgence of open American imperialist actions."

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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