Nicolás Maduro began a new term as Venezuela’s president on Thursday with the economy in ruins and his regime more isolated than ever, as regional leaders declared his reelection illegitimate and shunned his inauguration.
Maduro’s inauguration for a second term was met with strong rebukes from several major Latin American countries, as well as the United States and the European Union. Yet despite the diplomatic manoeuvres, the Venezuelan leader took office regardless.
From Buenos Aires, President Mauricio Macri – a longtime critic of the Venezuelan regime – took the opportunity to accuse Maduro of “mocking democracy,” while branding Venezuela a dictatorship.
Macri’s government supported both the declaration issued by 13 of the 14 members of the Lima Group and the Organisation of American States (OAS), which refused to recognise Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Both parties urged him to formally hand power over to the National Assembly.
“Nicolás Maduro today is making a mockery of democracy,” Macri said on Twitter. “Venezuelans know it, the world knows it. Venezuela lives under a dictatorship.”
The socialist leader, typical to form, fought back by calling Macri “Argentina’s destructor” and lashing out at Brazil and Colombia, dubbing all three nations “neoliberal … right-wing projects.”
President Macri instructed Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie and Argentina’s ambassador in Venezuela, Jorge Arreaza, not to attend this week’s inauguration. The government also decided to suspend a visa waiver programme for Venezuelan officials intending to visit Argentina, while the Financial Information Unit sent out an alert to financial institutions and private businesses warning of the risks of conducting operations with Venezuela’s government entities.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis drew criticism for his apparent support of the Maduro regime, given the depth of Venezuela’s economic crisis. The Holy See was represented at the inauguration by Monsignor George Koovakod, just weeks after the pontiff asked for a resolution to the social and economic crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua during his Christmas message.
A group of 20 former Latin American presidents responded with a letter in which they noted that it could be interpreted as a call for “victims to find common ground with their torturers.” Argentina’s Fernando De La Rúa, who is currently hospitalised but stable, was among those signing the message.
Maduro also found support from one of Argentina’s other global superstars: Diego Maradona. The former football player and current manager posted a previously taken picture of himself alongside Maduro on Instagram, with a caption that read: “Despite traitors and the imperialists that are looking to rule Venezuela, its people continue to choose Nicolás Maduro as their president.”
Maradona, a longtime supporter of the Venezuelan regime, has historically had a close relationship with both Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Maduro, 56, was sworn in by Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno as an audience of hundreds, including a handful of regional left-wing leaders – including Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba, Evo Morales of Bolivia, El Salvador’s Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega – and Venezuela’s military top brass, cheered and applauded.
Representatives of Russia, China and Turkey were also present. Mexico, the only nation of the Lima Group to stand alone under the new leadership of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, sent a low-level diplomat.
“I swear on behalf of the people of Venezuela ... I swear on my life,” Maduro said solemnly as he took the oath of office for a second six-year term.
After donning the presidential sash – as well as a ceremonial gold chain bearing the key to the sarcophagus containing the remains of Venezuela’s revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar – an ebullient Maduro turned to salute the crowd with a V-sign.
Maduro’s second six-year term extends the country’s socialist revolution amid widespread complaints that he has stripped the country of its last vestiges of democracy.
Maduro rejects accusations he is illegitimate, vowing to continue the legacy of late president Hugo Chávez and accusing the United States of trying to ignite unrest through its increasing economic sanctions.
“Venezuela is the centre of a world war led by the North American imperialists and its allies,” he declared in a speech after his swearing-in. “They have tried to convert a normal inauguration into a world war.”
In May, Maduro declared victory following an election that his political opponents and many foreign nations consider illegitimate because popular opponents were banned from running and the largest antigovernment parties boycotted the race.
On Thursday, the OAS voted not to recognize the legitimacy of Maduro’s second term, adopting a resolution presented by Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, the United States, Paraguay and Peru.
Venezuela’s ambassador to the OAS, Samuel Moncada, denounced the move as “a hostile act ... against the will of our nation.”
Paraguay went a step further, severing diplomatic ties. Peru also called home its top diplomat from Caracas in protest and banned 100 members of Maduro’s administration from entering the country.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the United States would keep up pressure in support of the Venezuelan people.
“It is time for Venezuelan leaders to make a choice,” Pompeo said. “Now is the time to convince the Maduro dictatorship that the moment has arrived for democracy to return to Venezuela.”
Venezuela, which sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves, produced 3.5 million barrels of crude daily when Chávez took power. Output has now plummeted to less than a third of that. Critics blame years of rampant corruption and mismanagement of the state-run oil company PDVSA.
The economic collapse has thrown the nation of 30 million people into turmoil.
The economy in 2019 will continue to contract and inflation will skyrocket at a staggering 23 million percent, forecasts Francisco Rodríguez, a former Venezuelan official who is now chief economist at New York-based Torino Capital.
An estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled, according to the United Nations. Those remaining live on a monthly minimum wage equal to less than US$5 and falling daily.
Many blame Maduro for Venezuela’s economic woes, which have left much of the population living in poverty with shortages of basic foods and medicines.
Nonetheless, Venezuela’s splintered opposition movement has failed to counter the Socialist Party’s (PSUV) dominance as Maduro’s government has jailed or driven into exile its most popular leaders.
Thursday’s swearing-in ceremony took place in the Supreme Court rather than the sidelined, opposition-controlled National Assembly, which has refused to recognise Maduro.
Instead, in a statement Thursday the National Assembly called on the Army, Maduro’s bedrock, to formally disavow the president. The leader later took the salute from nearly 5,000 troops at a colourful parade at the military academy with his Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino.
He called on them to be prepared “for any circumstances that we face this year or in years to come.”
While the opposition has tried to dislodge Maduro, it remains fractured, having launched a failed bid in March 2016 for a recall referendum aimed at removing Maduro from office before the end of his term. Many prominent opposition figures are either in jail or exile.
Meanwhile the National Assembly – the one institution they control – has been left impotent and powerless after Maduro created the rival Constituent Assembly and filled the Supreme Court with loyalists who annul every decision made by opposition lawmakers.
When the opposition-led National Assembly opened its session for the year, led by 35-year-old Juan Guaido, he accused Maduro of “usurping the presidency.”
“Today there is no head of state. Today there is no commander-in-chief,” Guaido said.