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Amid enduring political crisis, civil society created coalition to address tensions and mainstream opposition remained divided over strategy. Large group of civil society organisations, including NGOs, religious bodies, trade unions and country’s main business union Fedecámaras 5 Feb launched platform Foro Cívico Nacional (FNC) in bid to establish counterweight to both govt and opposition, and contribute to solving social and political crisis. FCN’s intention to seek partial, sectoral agreements with govt on economic and humanitarian relief sparked heated debate in opposition circles, with some arguing that approach undermines possibility of full-scale negotiation on “re-institutionalisation”. Mainstream opposition leader Juan Guaidó 3 Feb rejected idea of participating in regional elections due this year, even as some parties that compose mainstream opposition prepared to take part; National Assembly next day set up committee in charge of processing applications for new National Electoral Council, expected to be appointed in early April. In positive step, govt and Guaidó-led opposition, in collaboration with Pan American Health Organization and UN children’s fund (UNICEF), 11 Feb agreed to cooperate to purchase and distribute COVID-19 vaccines for 6mn people; opposition health policy advisers and govt representatives subsequently met to discuss distribution and oversight, and created joint technical team. Following two-week visit to Venezuela, UN special rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures and human rights, Alena Douhan, 12 Feb urged U.S., EU and other states to drop sanctions, citing “dramatic” effects on population. Guaidó-led opposition same day accused Douhan of falling into President Maduro’s “propaganda”, said economic collapse began before imposition of economic sanctions. EU Council 22 Feb imposed sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on 19 high-level officials accused of undermining democracy or violating human rights; in response, govt 24 Feb declared head of EU delegation in Caracas Isabel Brilhante “persona non grata”, giving her 72 hours to leave country. EU next day responded with reciprocal measure. Colombian President Duque 8 Feb granted ten-year protection status to about 1mn undocumented Venezuelan migrants, allowing them to work and to access health and education services.
President Maduro consolidated power with inauguration of new National Assembly. Newly-elected lawmakers – in their vast majority supporters of ruling socialist party – 5 Jan took office and elected Maduro’s key ally Jorge Rodríguez as assembly’s president. Assembly 7 Jan approved creation of special commission for dialogue, peace and national reconciliation, along with another special commission in charge of investigating alleged wrongdoing by 2016-2021 National Assembly headed by Juan Guaidó. Ruling-party legislators late Jan asked attorney general to prohibit Guaidó and 20 other opposition leaders from leaving country. Disagreements over strategy and decision-making continued to plague mainstream opposition. In virtual plenary of 2016-2021 assembly 5 Jan, Democratic Action, largest party in Guaidó’s coalition, opposed creation of Political Council to oversee Delegate Commission, made up of 20 legislators in charge of assembly’s functions; Democratic Action had abstained from approving creation of Delegate Commission in Dec. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell 6 Jan rejected newly-elected assembly, but stopped short of endorsing opposition’s argument that Guaidó-led assembly remains country’s legitimate parliament; while European Parliament 21 Jan issued resolution calling on EU Council to recognise Guaidó as country’s legitimate interim president, EU member states 25 Jan said Guaidó was part of democratic opposition. Outgoing U.S. administration 19 Jan imposed sanctions on three individuals, 14 entities and six vessels for contributing “to evade U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector”; same day deferred for 18 months removal of Venezuelan nationals from U.S. Following U.S. President Biden’s inauguration 20 Jan, Maduro 23 Jan called for “new path” in Venezuela-U.S. relations. Meanwhile, govt stepped up harassment of independent media and NGOs. Notably, pro-govt media and authorities early Jan accused journalists of news website Efecto Cocuyo and others of taking money from UK govt to act as anti-govt “mercenaries”; authorities 12 Jan arrested five employees of HIV-prevention NGO Blue Positive on charges of criminal association and money laundering. Tensions flared up with Guyana over disputed oil-rich maritime territory (see Guyana).
President Maduro secured vast parliamentary majority, regaining control of last branch of power outside his grasp. In 6 Dec legislative elections, ruling coalition won over 90% of 277 seats in National Assembly; electoral authority same day reported turnout of 30.5%. Main opposition parties boycotted polls, saying conditions for free and fair vote were not met. Mainstream opposition leader Juan Guaidó 8 Dec said outgoing opposition-controlled National Assembly would remain only legitimate legislature until free and fair elections are held. In bid to demonstrate retained support from electorate, mainstream opposition 7-12 Dec held “popular consultation”, inviting participants to declare new legislature illegitimate and repudiate Maduro’s “usurpation” of presidency; organising committee 13 Dec said more than 6.4mn voted, but later reduced figure by around 670,000, citing technical difficulties. Guaidó 13 Dec called for nationwide demonstrations on 5 Jan to reject inauguration of new National Assembly. Guaidó-led assembly 26 Dec extended its term – due to expire 4 Jan – for another year and delegated assembly’s functions to small group of legislators, although largest party in Guaido’s coalition, Democratic Action, abstained. Maduro 28 Dec called move “unconstitutional”, and Supreme Court 30 Dec ruled term extension invalid. U.S. Sec State Mike Pompeo 7 Dec said Washington would continue to recognise Guaidó-led assembly as only legitimate legislature; U.S. Treasury 18 Dec issued new round of financial sanctions on several individuals and company for abetting “fraudulent” elections. Office of International Criminal Court’s Prosecutor 14 Dec reiterated there was “reasonable basis” to believe crimes against humanity had been perpetrated in Venezuela since 2017 anti-govt protests, committing to determine in 2021 whether to open full investigation.
Govt pressed ahead with preparations for 6 Dec legislative elections amid opposition’s boycott calls. Campaign for legislative elections started 3 Nov with little popular interest as non-participation of opposition parties grossly limited political options, guaranteeing govt candidates would prevail. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s team 13 Nov said “popular consultation” on rejection of 6 Dec vote as sham and approval of opposition’s strategy of “national and international pressure” on President Maduro would take place virtually 7-12 Dec and in person 12 Dec. Following U.S. presidential election 3 Nov, both Maduro and Guaidó 7 Nov congratulated President-elect Joe Biden; Maduro expressed hope of resuming dialogue with U.S., while Guaidó called on Biden to help restore “democracy and freedom” in Venezuela. Biden, who will take office in Jan, vowed during campaign to set aside incumbent President Trump’s hardline approach of isolating Maduro and allies, including implicit threat of possible military intervention, known as “maximum pressure” policy. Court 26 Nov sentenced five U.S. nationals and another individual working for U.S. oil company CITGO – who have been imprisoned in Venezuela for three years – to between ten and 13 years in prison on corruption charges; U.S. Sec State Mike Pompeo next day criticised move and called for immediate release of jailed individuals. International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda 4 Nov said there was “a reasonable basis” to believe crimes falling under court’s jurisdiction had been committed in Venezuela since 2017 anti-govt protests, requested information on legal proceedings undertaken in Venezuela against alleged perpetrators. Amid COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn, social unrest persisted over access to basic commodities, notably gas, electricity and drinking water. Hundreds of teachers and health workers 4 Nov protested in capital Caracas to demand better wages and working conditions.
Govt remained on course to hold legislative elections 6 Dec and regain control of National Assembly, as mainstream opposition reiterated boycott strategy. Opposition-led National Assembly 1 Oct approved “consultation” of electorate, to take place around election date, over current strategy of “national and international pressure” on President Maduro’s govt and rejection of any vote held before conditions for free election are in place. Following 30 Sept announcement he would not present candidates for 6 Dec elections, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, formally a member of mainstream opposition, early Oct said he would continue to pursue electoral solution to political crisis. Govt-controlled National Constituent Assembly 9 Oct approved “Anti-blockade Law” enabling Maduro govt to avoid legal obstacles to international trade and investment and budgetary oversight of ensuing proceeds; legislation ostensibly aimed at circumventing U.S. sanctions. Bogotá-based U.S. Chargé d’Affaires for Venezuela Jimmy Story 15 Oct said Washington would continue to recognise mainstream opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president until free elections were held. Organization of American States 21 Oct passed resolution “affirming its profound concern at and rejection of the maneuvers to secure control by the illegitimate regime of Nicolás Maduro”. Intelligence agency SEBIN 20 Oct raided media outlet Correo del Caroni in eastern Puerto Ordaz city, seized equipment and detained two staff members. Guaidó’s Voluntad Popular party figure and former political prisoner Leopoldo López 23 Oct fled his hideout in Spanish ambassador’s residence and was reunited with his family in Spain’s capital Madrid next day; Venezuelan FM 25 Oct accused Spain of complicity in escape of “dangerous criminal”. Chief prosecutor 27 Oct announced “terrorist financing” charges against Voluntad Popular coordinator Roland Carreno days after he was arrested by security forces. Amid COVID-19 pandemic, Maduro 18 Oct announced reopening of number of govt offices, as well as tourist facilities and other economic sectors, arguing number of cases is steadily decreasing, despite doubts expressed by independent doctors.
Rifts widened within mainstream opposition over whether to contest legislative elections as President Maduro’s govt maintained tight control on electoral framework. Opposition led by Juan Guaidó 7 Sept reiterated decision to boycott 6 Dec legislative elections, with 37 parties signing “unity pact”; some factions, however, proceeded with election preparations; two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles registered candidates before 8 Sept deadline, said he might pull out if conditions do not improve. Guaidó 23 Sept called on UN member states to consider application of “responsibility to protect” doctrine to Venezuela, and 27 Sept announced formation of Commandos for Liberty and Free Elections, committees of local activists tasked with mobilising protests and coordinating opposition on the ground. Delays in election preparations and high rates of COVID-19 infection continued to cast doubt upon electoral calendar; independent research by Academy of Sciences 10 Sept predicted over 10,000 virus cases per day in Dec, while electoral authority yet to provide details on new electronic voting system. Head of govt-controlled National Constituent Assembly Diosdado Cabello 6 Sept said body would not draft new constitution before mandate expires in Dec. Series of protests late Sept erupted across country over petrol shortages and breakdown of basic services. International actors also remained divided over electoral process. High-level EU and EU-backed International Contact Group mission to Caracas 23 Sept sought six-month postponement and improvement in election conditions, notably by allowing foreign observers, while U.S. special representative Elliott Abrams 27 Sept criticised move, saying Brussels did not consult Washington on the matter. Organization of American States Sec Gen Luis Almagro 17 Sept called those participating in elections “accomplices of dictatorship”. UN fact-finding mission 16 Sept accused security forces and intelligence agencies of “extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture” amounting to crimes against humanity since 2014, argued that Maduro and several ministers “were aware of the crimes”, and called for international prosecution of those responsible; govt immediately rejected allegations, claiming mission had been bought off.
Govt continued to press for legislative elections in Dec despite widespread domestic and international concerns over fair conditions and inclusive vote. In statement issued 2 Aug, 26 mainstream opposition parties led by Juan Guaidó confirmed refusal to participate in legislative elections scheduled for 6 Dec, said vote would be rigged and taking part would amount to “collaborating with the dictatorship’s strategy”. Episcopal Conference of Venezuela 11 Aug warned abstention could lead to demobilisation of opposition and called on it to adopt clear strategy. Guaidó 19 Aug called on opposition and civil society leaders to sign up to Unity Pact as pledge of support to existing strategy. Two-time opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, formally a member of mainstream opposition, did not rule out electoral participation; govt twice put back deadline for candidates to register, apparently to accommodate him. VP of electoral authority Rafael Simón Jiménez – linked to minority opposition parties taking part in govt-led National Dialogue – 6 Aug resigned, arguing he was unable to maintain neutral stance; govt immediately replaced Jiménez with senior member of National Dialogue party, breaching law on appointments to body. EU foreign policy chief Borrell 11 Aug said govt had failed to compromise on electoral framework and conditions for “transparent, inclusive, free and fair” election did not exist, pledged to convene ministerial-level meeting of EU-backed International Contact Group to consider next steps. Group of 30 countries including U.S., UK, some small EU states and members of regional body Lima Group 14 Aug issued joint statement calling for “inclusive transitional govt” to lead country into “free and fair presidential elections”. Maduro 17 Aug said govt-controlled National Constituent Assembly (ANC) would close down when its mandate expires in Dec; ANC was created in 2017, supposedly to reform constitution, but has so far failed to deliver on its mandate. Govt 31 Aug pardoned over 110 people including opposition politicians; Guaidó immediately said move was govt ploy to legitimate elections and institutional reform was only route to “reconciliation”. Amid exponential increase in COVID-19 cases, concerns persisted over govt and health system’s capacity to respond to crisis.
President Maduro’s govt continued to tighten control on electoral framework ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for Dec. Newly appointed electoral authority (CNE) 1 July said parliamentary elections would take place 6 Dec. On occasion of Independence Day 5 July, Defence Minister Padrino López delivered hardline speech describing mainstream opposition led by Juan Guaidó as “bunch of crooks” who will “never exercise power” as long as army remains “anti-imperialist, Bolivarian and revolutionary”. Supreme Court 7 July transferred command of Guaidó’s Voluntad Popular party to ad hoc committee led by José Gregorio Noriega, previously expelled from party over allegations of corruption but recognised by govt as National Assembly VP; decision followed similar moves against two other mainstream opposition parties in June. Opposition continued to reject govt-controlled Supreme Court changes to electoral law announced in June – which resulted notably in increase in number of National Assembly seats from 167 to 277, and in number of MPs elected by party list rather than individually – saying they have no legal basis. In interview with Tal Cual newspaper 13 July, CNE board member Rafael Simón Jiménez admitted CNE, despite being officially independent, executes decisions taken by National Dialogue Roundtable – govt-led dialogue initiative involving minority opposition parties. Following call between EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell and FM Jorge Arreaza, govt 2 July rescinded its late June decision to expel EU representative from country; expulsion came in response to EU imposition of sanctions on individuals for “undermining democracy and rule of law” following appointment of new CNE earlier in June. Borrell 13 July proposed ministerial-level meeting of EU/Uruguay-led International Contact Group “with all the key players” of Venezuelan political crisis to discuss conditions for Dec elections. Opposition 24 July reiterated that Norway-sponsored govt-opposition talks were over after Norwegian govt representatives said they would visit capital Caracas late July to assess political and humanitarian situation. Amid dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases, concerns persisted over health system capacity, while several high-level officials tested positive for virus.
Political crisis escalated further as President Maduro’s govt took series of steps to strengthen control over electoral framework and silence opposition ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for Dec. After talks between govt and opposition led by Juan Guaidó over composition of new electoral authority (CNE) broke down early June, govt-controlled Supreme Court 12 June appointed new CNE with absolute majority for Maduro allies and no seat for Guaidó-led opposition; Supreme Court also ordered changes to electoral law expanding seats in National Assembly from 167 to over 200, increasing number of lawmakers elected through party list rather than individually and modifying method for electing legislators representing indigenous communities; opposition leaders including Guaidó immediately rejected ruling, insisted only National Assembly is constitutionally allowed to elect CNE members. In following days, Supreme Court named new leaders, representing dissident factions more lenient toward govt, for two out of four parties that compose mainstream opposition – Acción Democrática 15 June and Primero Justicia 16 June – and 17 June threatened third party Un Nuevo Tiempo with same fate; Supreme Court also reportedly looked to dissolve fourth party, Guaidó’s Voluntad Popular. International actors including EU, U.S., regional body Lima Group and EU/Uruguay-led International Contact Group mid-June condemned recent moves as further deterioration of political crisis. After EU 29 June imposed sanctions on 11 senior officials for “undermining democracy and rule of law”, Maduro same day ordered EU ambassador to leave country within 72 hours. Previously, govt and opposition 2 June said they had reached agreement with Pan American Health Organization to cooperate to raise funds to address COVID-19 pandemic; humanitarian organisations celebrated move as precedent that could allow broader agreements.
Following foiled armed incursion by sea, reportedly attempting to topple President Maduro, authorities detained dozens suspected of involvement and further suppressed opposition. Govt 3 May said it had prevented group of former soldiers planning to capture Maduro from landing at seaside town of Macuto near capital Caracas same day, killing eight and arresting two; within hours, former National Guard Captain Javier Nieto and Jordan Goudreau, ex-U.S. special forces and head of U.S. private security company Silvercorp, claimed responsibility; Goudreau said he had obtained initial contract for operation signed by two members of strategic committee established by opposition leader Juan Guaidó in 2019; opposition leadership next day said meetings with Silvercorp were exploratory and soon dropped. In following days, security forces detained dozens for alleged involvement in plot, including two U.S. nationals; U.S. Sec State Pompeo 6 May denied “direct” U.S. involvement. Authorities late month moved to crack down further on opposition. Attorney general 25 May asked Supreme Court to declare Guaidó’s Voluntad Popular party “terrorist organisation”. Supreme Court 27 May formally recognised MP and President Maduro ally Luis Parra, who pro-govt lawmakers declared head of National Assembly (AN) during Jan session which security forces prevented opposition from attending, as AN chair instead of Guaidó; next day, AN defied ruling and ratified Guaidó as head. Authorities reportedly arrested more than two dozen opposition supporters 18-24 May. Amid COVID-19 crisis, riot 1 May erupted in Llanos prison near Guanare city (west) over ban on outside visits, leaving over 40 prisoners dead. Maduro 12 May announced 30-day extension of countrywide lockdown as widespread protests over petrol, water and food shortages continued. Despite U.S. warning against Iranian assistance and shipments of fuel to Venezuela, first of five Iranian tankers arrived in Venezuelan waters 24 May. In virtual meeting of external actors including U.S. and Russia convened by Sweden 13 May, broad consensus reportedly emerged on need for negotiated solution to political crisis using basis of Norwegian-facilitated opposition-govt talks suspended in Aug 2019, though no formal agreement reached.
Amid COVID-19 crisis, protests and looting erupted over lack of food and fuel, several journalists critical of govt response arrested, and U.S. pressure on President Maduro to force him to leave office continued. Maduro 11 April extended countrywide COVID-19 lockdown for further 30 days. Security forces throughout month reportedly detained several medical personnel and journalists who questioned govt’s claim it had “contained” spread of virus, charging some with “spreading hate”. Notably, press association 18 April reported seven arbitrary arrests of journalists 1-15 April. Isolated protests and lootings erupted in several areas, especially in east, over lack of food and fuel amid COVID-19 pandemic and collapse of oil industry; notably, man was reportedly shot dead 23 April during looting in Upata town. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó 21 April denied media report of secret exploratory talks between his and Maduro’s allies. Lack of clarity persisted over whether parliamentary elections, due this year, could take place in light of COVID-19 crisis; Maduro mid-April said he was unsure if vote would proceed. Despite FM Jorge Arreaza’s 31 March rejection of U.S. offer to lift sanctions in exchange for political transition – whereby Maduro and Guaidó would step aside and executive power be held by “Council of State”, nominated by govt and opposition, until presidential election – govt in subsequent days reportedly showed willingness to consider proposal. Following March indictment of Maduro and others on drugs-related charges, U.S. continued to escalate pressure on govt. U.S. 1 April said that its forthcoming, large-scale anti-drugs operation in southern Caribbean, which will double its naval presence in region, will also serve declared aim of cutting off resources to Maduro govt; govt immediately accused Washington of “slander and threats”. UN Security Council (UNSC) 22 April debated Venezuela at virtual “closed door” session, for first time in a year, at request of Russia, which criticised U.S. policy; UNSC met again 28 April to discuss humanitarian crisis in country.
Amid COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. charged President Maduro and several top aides with drug trafficking, opposition leader Juan Guaidó called for govt of national unity, but excluding Maduro, and Colombia closed its official border crossings with Venezuela. U.S. attorney general 26 March announced indictment of Maduro, Defence Minister Padrino López and others on drugs-related charges in major escalation of U.S. administration’s campaign to pressure Maduro to leave office. Venezuelan chief prosecutor within hours announced investigation into Guaidó in connection with arms shipment seized in Colombia two days earlier. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 31 March offered to lift sanctions in exchange for political transition; FM Jorge Arreaza immediately rejected proposal. Amid concerns over effect of coronavirus epidemic on country’s oil-dependent economy and weakened health care system, Maduro 13 March declared “state of alarm”, allowing him to restrict civil rights; govt subsequently deployed armed forces and militia members to curtail movement and suspended most international flights. International Monetary Fund (IMF) 17 March turned down Maduro’s request for $5bn to deal with COVID-19, citing lack of clarity over recognition of govt. COVID-19 spread limited opposition mobilisation; police 10 March fired tear gas to repel Guaidó’s supporters attempting to march on parliament building from which govt excluded Guaidó-aligned MPs in Jan; opposition later suspended planned demonstrations due to coronavirus. Guaidó 28 March proposed national emergency govt, excluding Maduro but with all political forces represented, to deal with epidemic. Humanitarian situation in Colombia-Venezuela border region remained dire. After Colombia 14 March closed official border crossings amid COVID-19 pandemic, VP Rodriguez described move as “grotesque irresponsibility”, accused Colombian govt of handing border control to “paramilitaries”. Previously unknown group “Venezuelan Patriot Command” claimed 7 March fire at electoral authority (CNE) warehouse in capital Caracas that destroyed voting machines for parliamentary elections due this year; CNE chairperson immediately insisted elections would go ahead; however COVID-19 emergency led to 16 March suspension of govt and opposition efforts to agree on composition of new CNE.
Political standoff continued as opposition leader Juan Guaidó consolidated international standing and govt held military drills, while U.S. launched new sanctions targeting govt. Guaidó 11 Feb returned from foreign tour in which leaders of Colombia, UK, France, Germany, U.S. and EU foreign policy chief received him as head of state; security forces did not arrest Guaidó although he had left country in defiance of travel ban, but anti-Guaidó demonstrators at airport beat and robbed journalists trying to cover his return, authorities arrested Guaidó’s uncle – who was travelling with him – on accusations of bringing explosives into country and 17 Feb suspended operations in country of airline which had carried him home on same accusations. Govt 15-16 Feb held nationwide military exercises involving both army and civilian militia, volunteer reservist force created by former President Chavez and formally incorporated to regular forces in early Feb, with President Maduro claiming involvement of 2.3mn troops, while security forces deployed Russian-built surface-to-air missiles near Caracas international airport and at eastern Caracas air base; Maduro 17 Feb said exercises would continue indefinitely. U.S. 7 Feb announced sanctions against state-run airline Conviasa and 17 Feb against trading arm of Russian state-linked oil company Rosneft, reportedly responsible for 70% of Venezuela’s oil exports and supplying govt with oil products; in response, Maduro 18 Feb declared oil industry emergency and named presidential commission headed by former VP Tareck El Aissami to restructure sector. Authorities late Feb announced they would allow companies to raise capital in foreign currency as Maduro liberalises economy. Despite ongoing disagreement on who presides National Assembly, govt and opposition 26 Feb agreed on composition of parliamentary committee to propose new members of electoral authority.
Political crisis deepened as MP Luis Parra, backed by President Maduro, and opposition leader Juan Guaidó both claimed National Assembly (AN) leadership after Maduro’s govt moved to take back control of opposition-dominated parliament. Ahead of scheduled vote to elect AN president for next twelve months, govt 5 Jan deployed National Guard to prevent opposition MPs from entering parliament building. Maduro’s new ally Parra, expelled from opposition Primero Justicia Party over allegations of corruption in Dec, declared himself AN president same day, but opposition said voting session did not reach quorum of 84 MPs (out of 167). Guaidó 5 Jan convened session away from parliament building, said 100 MPs re-elected him as AN president. Guaidó 8 Jan held session in parliament building after forcing his way past police cordon in standoff with security forces, but abandoned plan to hold new session there after paramilitary groups known as colectivos 15 Jan attacked convoy carrying several opposition MPs to parliament building and assaulted journalists. In defiance of order banning him from leaving country, Guaidó 19 Jan started foreign tour in bid to shore up international backing, meeting with leaders of Colombia, UK, France, Canada, U.S. Sec State Pompeo and EU foreign policy chief Borrell.
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