June 2018

By Daniel P. Erikson and Gabriella Ippolito

Over the past two decades, Venezuela’s economic and political decline has been accompanied by its emergence as the epicenter of strange news from the Americas. The government at one point moved its clocks back by one-half hour, then changed its mind nine years later to move them forward; its president Nicolas Maduro has conversed with a small bird who he claimed represented the country’s late leader, Hugo Chavez; and the government introduced the “petro,” a new oil-based crypto-currency.

Even by Venezuela’s admittedly high standards, however, the seven days from May 20 to May 26, 2018 will go down in memory as one of the stranger weeks in the country’s recent memory. It began with Venezuela holding a presidential election on Sunday, May 20 that was roundly condemned by the international community, followed by new U.S. sanctions and mutual expulsions of senior diplomats, featured a surprise visit by Republican Chairman of Senator Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker, and ended with a meeting between former U.S. political prisoner Josh Holt and President Trump in the Oval Office.

The sudden crush of urgent developments made for a head-snapping set of events whose effects will linger for months to come.

Sunday, May 20

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro won a second term in office, easily defeating his main challenger, former Governor of Lara state Henri Falcon in a vote of 67.7% to 21.2%. Turnout was only at 46.1 percent (it was 80 percent in the most recent prior election). Falcon said that, “the process undoubtedly lacks legitimacy and as such we do not recognize it.” The election results were rejected by the United States, the European Union, and a group of sixteen regional countries known as “the Lima Group,” due to concerns about widespread election tampering and the ban on the country’s most recognizable opposition politicians including Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo Lopez, and Antonio Ledezma, among others. 

Monday, May 21

President Trump signed a new executive order on Venezuela that imposed new sanctions on Venezuela with the aim of blocking Maduro from selling government debt. No U.S. companies or citizens are allowed to buy debt from the Venezuelan government or Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-run oil company. This latest round of sanctions by the Trump administration followed a new set of sanctions targeting senior Venezuelan official Diosdado Cabello just before the elections. However, the U.S. Government has yet to impose direct sanctions on the oil sector which remains the Venezuelan government’s primary source of financing. 

Tuesday, May 22

Venezuela expelled the top two US diplomatic envoys in Caracas, Chargé d’Affaires Todd Robinson and Brian Naranjo, the deputy chief of mission at the Embassy. Maduro accused the two U.S. officials of interfering in the Venezuelan election and said that the expulsions were "in defense of the dignity of the homeland." U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert responded that “we completely reject the false allegations that have been made by the Maduro regime against our two colleagues.”

Wednesday, May 23

The United States reciprocated the diplomatic expulsions by ordering the departure of two Venezuelan diplomats, the Chargé d’Affaires of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, Carlos J. Ron, and the deputy consul general of Venezuela’s consulate in Houston, Carlos Paredes Colmenares. Just before the expulsions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned, “We will respond appropriately and reciprocally, but also perhaps proportionately,” during a congressional hearing. Maduro has since nominated Carlos Ron to be Venezuela’s next Vice Minister for International Relations with North America. 

Thursday, May 24

President Maduro moved up his inauguration by eight months to be sworn in for a second six-year term. He was sworn in in front of the Constituent Assembly not the National Assembly, as is mandated by the Venezuelan Constitution. In his speech Maduro said that, “Venezuela has once more ratified its path, socialism. You’ve elected a president to build socialism, to resolve the problems, for dialogue and peace.” The government said a second inauguration would take place on January 10, 2019, which would normally mark the beginning of the president's next full term.

Friday, May 25

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, flew to Venezuela to meet with President Maduro just days after U.S. diplomats were ejected from the country. He was accompanied by his aide Caleb McCarry, a Latin America expert with deep knowledge of Venezuela. Following the meeting, Maduro said that he and Corker were “strengthening international relationships” and Venezuela’s Information Minister said it was a gesture aimed at promoting “dialogue and respect toward our independence.” Upon learning of the trip, Senator Marco Rubio tweeted, “Any U.S. Senator can meet with whoever they want. But no matter how many senators dictator @NicolasMaduro gets to meet with him, U.S. sanctions will go away when Maduro leaves & democracy returns.”

Saturday, May 26

In the morning, the Venezuelan government released Josh Holt, a former Mormon missionary from Utah, who had been imprisoned in Venezuela for two years on specious weapons charges, as well as his Venezuelan wife, Thamy Caleño. Upon his liberation, Holt flew back to Washington, D.C. with Senator Corker, and was received by President Trump in the Oval Office. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah released a statement welcoming the release and praising the efforts of Senator Corker and his staff. The White House averred that "no concessions" were made to the Venezuelan government to secure Holt’s return, although the surprise good news story did prompt a cascade of positive press and briefly moved the spotlight off of Venezuela’s troubled election. In his meeting with Holt, President Trump told him that “you’ve gone through a lot, more than most people could endure,” and that “you were a tough one, I have to tell you, that was a tough situation.” President Trump also thanked Senator Corker, as well as members of Utah’s congressional delegation, Senator Hatch, Senator Mike Lee, and Representative Mia Love. Meanwhile, Senator Rubio of Florida, said, “I’m glad Josh Holt is home,” and warned, “This has nothing to do with the broader issue of sanctions, those things stay in place, the administration made that clear policy has not changed.”

What Next?

On May 27, the Associated Press published a detailed blow-by-blow of the events that led to Josh Holt’s release. In early June, the Organization of American States hosted a special permanent council meeting to address the aftermath of the Venezuelan elections and voted to hold an extraordinary assembly to decide on Venezuela’s expulsion from the body.

Meanwhile, the week of May 20-26 marked seven days that will leave a deep imprint on Venezuela and U.S.-Venezuelan relations. President Nicolas Maduro won a new six-year mandate that was roundly rejected by the international community. Official U.S.-Venezuelan diplomatic relations deteriorated to new lows even as a little-known diplomatic back channel won the release of imprisoned American Josh Holt. President Trump was able to claim a diplomatic victory that occurred largely outside the efforts of his Administration. And Holt was able to return to his family to Utah, ending a two year ordeal that had further disrupted relations between both countries. Thus, in the space of seven short days, Venezuela careened through an election, sanctions, two sets of diplomatic expulsions, an inauguration, congressional diplomacy, and a prisoner liberation.

In the final analysis, Venezuela’s wild week demonstrates that the country will retain its capacity to surprise as its political drama churns towards an unknown future.