Explained | What is happening in Venezuela?

UN Human Rights Council has called on member states to “scale up pressure” on Venezuelan authorities and call for free and fair elections in the country.

March 22, 2022 03:22 pm | Updated March 23, 2022 12:37 pm IST

Former Venezuelan National Assembly president and Opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a press conference at Los Palos Grandes square in Caracas, on March 17, 2022.

Former Venezuelan National Assembly president and Opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a press conference at Los Palos Grandes square in Caracas, on March 17, 2022. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: As nations across the globe track Venezuela for their oil requirements, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) said last week that the country would be put to scrutiny at the forum. As part of its oral update exercise, the council would provide an opportunity to member states to shed light on the ongoing human rights crises in the country such as crackdown on dissent, humanitarian emergency and the migration crisis.

The forum asked member states to “scale up pressure on Venezuelan authorities” to abandon their systematic campaign against civil society activists and journalists, among others. “Member states should also call for Venezuela to ensure free and fair elections, and to implement recommendations issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Fact-Finding Mission,” the statement read. 

What is happening in Venezuela?  

The sequence of events goes back to April 2013 when the then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died of cancer, following which his preferred successor Nicolas Maduro, won the presidential election against Henrique Capriles, candidate of the opposition alliance, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).  

In January 2014, with plummeting oil prices globally, Venezuela was mired in a state of economic decline, inflation and widespread insecurity among the public. A group of opposition leaders initiated a campaign, referred to as The Exit, to oust the incumbent President. Public protests also took shape. The UNHRC mentions that the security forces used excessive force against unarmed protestors and bystanders. Further, the government forces tolerated and sometimes collaborated directly with armed pro-government gangs that attacked protestors.

The agency notes that inflation had reached 63.4% in December 2014. The continually deteriorating economic situation recurrently raised tensions and political opposition.  

Elections of 2015 and the judicial appointments: For the first time in 16 years, the coalition of opposition parties won two-thirds of seats in the National Assembly elections. But before the new legislators could assume office in January 2016, the outgoing regime was quick to appoint 13 judges and 21 alternates to the Supreme Court – all ruling party loyalists.  

In early 2016, news agency AFP reported, the Supreme Court prevented four opposition leaders from taking their National Assembly seats, subsequently eliminating ‘supermajority’. This implied the MUD could neither make important political appointments nor replace Supreme Court judges.  

Snatching powers of the National Assembly: In March 2016, the MUD made an unsuccessful attempt to oust President Maduro before the expiry of his term in 2019.  

The Supreme Court, in March 2017, stated it would assume legislative powers of the National Assembly as the latter, allegedly, continued to be in contempt of the court’s decision with respect to participation of certain parliamentarians. Following public protests, the court backtracked on key parts of the decision.  

In May, Mr. Maduro enacted a decree provisioning the establishment of a Constituent Assembly “with the objective of transforming the state, creating a new legal system and rewriting the Constitution”. Following a largely opaque public vote, the National Constituent Assembly assumed all legislative functions.  

The Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict noted a total of 9,787 protests occurred in 2017 – highest since 2014. 69% of these protests were between April and July-end.  

The 2018 Presidential Elections: Talks between the Venezuelan Govt and the MUD broke down in 2018.  

That year, the National Electoral Council preponed the presidential elections slated for December to May. Mr. Maduro renewed his six-year stay at the office with a landslide victory in the elections boycotted by opposition parties. The total turnout stood at 46.02%, which was significantly less than 2013, UNHRC’s fact-finding report states.  

The new President(s): Mr. Maduro was sworn-in as the President for the second time in January 2019. 

However, the same month, based on certain constitutional provisions, National Assembly President Juan Guaidó declared himself the “interim President” until the conduct of fair elections. The relevant constitutional provisions stated that the National Assembly was to take over Presidency should the President become unable to serve.  


United States recognises the interim President Juan Guaidó and considers the 2015 democratically-elected Venezuelan National, which he presently leads, the “only legitimate federal institution” in accordance with the Venezuelan Constitution.  

“Maduro, who was not re-elected via free and fair elections, clings to power through the subversion of democratic institutions, manipulation of elections, and force,” states the U.S. Dept of State. Further, more than sixty countries, including the European Union, Organisation of American States, Lime Group and the International Group, have issued statements condemning the “fraudulent” parliamentary elections that took place in 2020, the department states.  

Mr. Maduro was sanctioned by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of United States in 2017 with the Dept of Justice charging him for narco-terrorism and drug trafficking in 2020.  

How bad is the crisis? 

Refugee Crisis: According to the Council’s Inter Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, there are more than 6 million refugees and migrants from the country globally. Of which, approximately 5 million are in Latin American and Caribbean countries.  

The UN Refugee Agency mentioned many Venezuelan refugees did not possess any documentation or permission to stay regularly in nearby countries, and therefore lack guaranteed access to basic rights. “This makes them particularly vulnerable to labour and sexual exploitation, trafficking, violence, discrimination and xenophobia,” it added.  

Crackdown on dissent: UNHRC’s latest statement mentioned about the Venezuelan Govt’s crackdown on dissent was facilitated by security agencies and armed pro-government groups carrying out, with impunity, abuses such as extrajudicial killings, short-term enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and torture. 

Health and Nutrition: One in three Venezuelans are food insecure, the UNHRC statement reads.  

Since 2016, the country has recorded a spike in measles, diphtheria, malaria and tuberculosis. According to the Council, individuals have been forced to discontinue their HIV treatment owing to lack of antiretroviral (ARV) medicines.  

Venezuela ranked 180 out of 195 in the 2019 Global Health Security Index among countries least prepared to mitigate the spread of an epidemic. “Overcrowding in low-income areas and prisons, as well as generalized limited access to water in hospitals and homes, makes it likely that the new coronavirus will rapidly spread within the country,” the Human Rights body had stated in 2020.  

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