Thursday, January 24, 2019

Venezuela's Day After January 23

I am quoted in this Bloomberg article about two presidents in Venezuela. Back in 1994, I finished my MA thesis on US recognition policy toward Latin America, which much later I published in Presidential Studies Quarterly. This gets to the very question of what it means to be "president." I've received some push-back on Twitter, particularly from Venezuelans who insist there is no doubt that Juan Guaidó is president. But it's not so simple.

Thomas Jefferson would have said that Nicolás Maduro was president because he had de facto control over the country. In Latin America, this has really meant the person who managed to get the military's support. For Jefferson, that's all that mattered. Like the Estrada Doctrine, it implied no political judgment by outsiders. That changed over time, of course, as the United States government decided it wanted to exert judgment. We don't talk about "recognition" much at all anymore because it's so rarely in doubt since elections tend to resolve the question to the point that there is no civil unrest that threatens the leader who claims the presidency.

So who is "president" in such a case? For most of Latin America's history, the U.S. was much more able to dictate the answer. There were no outside powers willing to argue the case or to prop up a given government. During the Cold War, the extreme cases became civil wars, and fighting led to the answer. Now, though, U.S. recognition isn't enough. Maduro currently controls the military and the oil supply while maintaining financial relationships with Russia and China. Until those change, you can call Guaidó president if you like, but it will have no concrete impact. If Maduro has monopoly over the use of force, he is de facto the head of government and head of state. That means China and Russia are willing to deal with him. That means he determines where Venezuelan oil is sold. That means he approves military budgets and promotions. Guaidó currently does none of those things.

Yesterday I wrote this and it still holds:

There were no signs of military splintering or regime cracking and they still controlled the oil. As long as those hold, you can call whoever you want to be president. The countries that recognized Guaidó are out there hanging if they keep insisting that someone with no power is in charge.
Maduro wants to wait this out and let it die down, which has happened with previous protests (though certainly none that brought in international actors like this). If he can, then he remains head of state and head of government in all practical terms, no matter who is called "president."


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