Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela in 1998 and, because Venezuela is a petrostate with the largest oil reserves in the world, his socialist government was able to successfully implement its plan to provide subsidized goods and services to the Venezuelan people. However, years of economic mismanagement and corruption under Chavez led to Venezuela’s almost complete dependence on oil exports, and the collapse of global oil prices in 2014 led to a rapid economic decline.
After Chavez’s death in 2013, then–Vice President Maduro assumed the presidency and was subsequently elected to office. His government attempted to address the economic crisis by printing money. This policy resulted in hyperinflation (the International Monetary Fund estimates that inflation could hit 10 million percent in 2019). By 2014, large-scale anti-government protests erupted across the country and, in 2015, voters expressed their dissatisfaction by electing the first opposition-controlled National Assembly in two decades.
Since the situation deteriorated and the crisis escalated in 2015, an estimated 3.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country; Venezuela’s neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean host approximately 2.7 million refugees, with nearly 1.5 million in Colombia. Estimates from the United Nations suggest that these numbers will increase, with 5.4 million projected to leave the country by the end of 2019. The exodus has also caused a regional humanitarian crisis, as neighboring governments are unable to absorb refugees and asylum seekers. Moreover, because the government has been unable to provide social services, Venezuelans face severe food and medicine shortages, as well as the continuing spread of infectious diseases.
As the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela escalates and the political situation deteriorates, the exodus of Venezuelans to neighboring countries is expected to continue. The strain on aid groups and regional governments to support refugees and asylum seekers may further expand what has already become a regional crisis. The United States has stated its interest in mitigating the humanitarian crisis and preventing further destabilization of the region.
Venezuela is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Thousands of people flee the country every day, mostly on foot. In April 2019, after years of denying the existence of a humanitarian crisis and refusing to allow foreign aid to enter the country—calling aid shipments a political ploy by the United States—Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro allowed the entry of a shipment of emergency supplies from the Red Cross. Venezuela’s infrastructure has been poorly maintained, recently leading to a series of country-wide blackouts in March 2019 that left millions without power.
Maduro was reelected to a second six-year term in May 2018, despite boycotts and accusations of fraud in a widely condemned election, including by a group of fourteen neighboring countries known as the Lima Group, and was officially sworn in to office in January 2019. Two weeks later, on January 15, the National Assembly declared Maduro’s election illegitimate and opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced that he would assume office as interim president until free and fair elections could be held. Guaidó was quickly recognized as interim president by the United States, Canada, most of the European Union, and the Organization of American States, but Maduro retains the support of several major countries including China, Cuba, Russia, and Turkey.
The resulting political standoff has seen an increase in U.S. sanctions against the Maduro government, including targeting oil shipments to Cuba—Maduro has increasingly relied on Cuban military and intelligence support to stay in power—as well as discussions about a potential military intervention. Russia, meanwhile, continues to support the Maduro government, sending Russian troops to Venezuela in March 2019 and helping the government evade sanctions on the oil industry. China has continued to back the Maduro government as well, including offering to help rebuild the national power grid.