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Timeline: Venezuela's Political Standoff

Venezuelan soldiers on the Tienditas Bridge. (AP)

Venezuelan soldiers on the Tienditas Bridge. (AP)

March 19, 2019

Two presidents, one country, and a million headlines. How did Venezuela get here? Here's a timeline of key developments of late:
When new headlines coming out of Venezuela by the hour, it can be easy to miss important but less visible developments like the poisoning of a congressman and his cousin. In our Venezuela timeline, we're tracking the need-to-know headlines—big and small:

Venezuela’s crisis reached a breaking point in early 2019. At the heart of it is a constitutional battle playing out between the dueling administrations of Nicolás Maduro and interim president Juan Guaidó. Maduro, who’s been in office since 2013, is widely viewed as an illegitimate president, and several dozen countries have shifted their official recognition to Guaidó as the country’s interim president until new elections can be held.

With most national media shuttered and new stories swirling every hour, AS/COA Online tracks the need-to-know developments.

March 19The New York Times’ Nick Casey published a report on Monday detailing how chavistas used Cuban doctors in the country as a tool to manipulate Venezuelan elections over the years. For example, during Maduro’s May 2018 election—widely considered a sham—doctors said they were forced to withhold life-saving treatments from patients until closer to election day. That same day Casey’s story came out, a young doctor became the third in two weeks to be removed from his job after speaking up about the humanitarian crisis. His dismissal letter cited “serious lack of respect” for higher-ups.

Vice President Delcy Rodríguez said over the weekend that Maduro has asked all the members of his cabinet to submit their resignations as part of an “in-depth restructuring” of his administration.

U.S. special envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams said his meetings with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in Rome on Monday and Tuesday regarding the situation in Caracas were “positive” but not fruitful. Abrams previously testified on Capitol Hill that he’d met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. and had “not yet” met with the Chinese. On the trip to Rome, Abrams also met with officials from Italy, one of the few EU countries that does not recognize Guaidó, and the Vatican, which has not engaged in Venezuela since failed peace talks in 2016.

March 13 —  Power is coming back slowly and intermittently to Venezuela’s cities, but one sociologist said the country is effectively in a state of anarchy. Few outside the Maduro regime believe the chavistas’ claim the outage was due to a cyberattack since most of the grid is analog and not networked.

Late Tuesday night, Venezuelan intelligence police, known as the SEBIN, arrested high-profile investigative journalist Luis Carlos. They also raided his home and pocketed cash savings of his and his wife, a Caracas Chronicles journalist who is in remission from cancer. They released Carlos 30 hours later but with several restrictions on his liberties in place. The regime did so while a team from the UN Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights was in Venezuela preparing for Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s upcoming visit.

Yesterday, the U.S. State Department announced it was pulling all diplomatic personnel from the country and said the embassy in Caracas would no longer provide consular services. It also advised all U.S. citizens living or traveling in Venezuela to leave the country and advised against traveling there.

March 11 — Venezuela marks its fourth day of a national blackout, an outage experts say could continue indefinitely, according to a report from The New York Times. The article details how the San Geronimo B substation, which supplies power from the Guri hydroelectric dam to 80 percent of Venezuelans, failed on Thursday. The Maduro government tried four times since then to restart the Guri’s turbines with no success; the latest attempt even caused a second substation to explode and internal reports suggest a major equipment failure. Government plant workers were told to stay home on Monday, and the Maduro government called a national holiday, closing schools and businesses across the country.

But despite the government’s attempts to keep people off the streets, anxiety is rising. So far, at least 21 deaths in hospitals have been linked directly to the blackout, according to the NGO Médicos por la Salud. Looting is taking place across the country, as are arrests of some of the looters. By Monday, thirsty residents of Caracas had taken to collecting water from the notoriously unsanitary Guaire River. Hugo Chávez pledged to clean up the river back in 2005 and took in $150 million in investment for the project within five years, but little to no progress was made.

With oil production already flagging, the blackout has also shut down exports from Venezuela’s primary port. If and when PDVSA is able to resume production, it won’t be until after the national grid is back up.

March 8 — By midday Friday, Venezuela hits 20 hours of a nationwide power outage. All but one state reported outages. The one that didn't report any was the jungle state of Amazonas because news site Efecto Cocuyo couldn't get in touch with anybody there.

Nicolás Maduro, predictably and yet improbably, blamed the outage on an “electric war” caused by U.S. imperialism.

The World Bank dealt the Maduro administration another blow on Thursday when its tribunal ruled that the Bolivarian country must pay ConocoPhillips $8 billion in losses stemming from oil assets lost when Chávez expropriated them in 2007. The Venezuela Central Bank reported having $8.75 billion in international reserves at the close of 2018.

March 6 — Venezuelan military counterintelligence agents detained U.S. journalist Cody Weddle and his Venezuelan assistant Carlos Camacho early Wednesday morning on two unspecified charges, according to Venezuela’s National Union of Journalists, known as SNTP. Weddle’s housekeeper told media she saw the officers raid his home, and force him out with his passport, other documents, money, and equipment in hand. A graduate of Virginia Tech, Weddle has been based in Caracas for close to five years, working for his first two and a half for teleSUR and later as a freelance journalist. Organization of American States head Luis Almagro, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and U.S. Western Hemisphere Affairs Assistant Secretary of State Kimberly Breier, among others, all called for Weddle’s immediate release. Camacho was released that afternoon, and later, after 12 hours of detention, Weddle was also and will be deported.

Weddle’s detention came the week after Maduro had Mexican-American journalist Jorge Ramos and his team detained and then released, but the regime confiscated their equipment and tapes. Weddle and Ramos are the two most high-profile foreign journalists detained in Venezuela of late, among many other journalist arrests. In 2019 alone, the Maduro regime has detained 36 members of the press, according to SNTP’s count. While some like Weddle, Ramos, and three EFE journalists were since released, others such as German freelancer Billy Six and Venezuelan multimedia reporter Jesús Medina remain in detention.

U.S. special envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams this week said that Washington had other “stronger” measures against Caracas “ready.” He’s scheduled to testify on Thursday morning before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, along with AS/COA Vice President Eric Farnsworth.

March 4 — All eyes were on Caracas’ main airport today, where Guaidó landed after completing his five-country tour. Diplomats from several countries in the Americas and Europe were there to await his arrival. Though there were concerns the Maduro administration might detain Guaidó on the basis that he violated a prohibition on his leaving the country issued by the chavista-stacked Supreme Court, Guaidó entered without incident, something he attributed to a broken chain of command. “I got in. Somebody did not follow orders,” he said. Guaidó is calling for more nationwide rallies on March 9.

March 1 — Guaidó visits Paraguay to meet with President Mario Abdo Benítez, after meeting with Jair Bolsonaro in Brasília on Thursday. The interim president says he plans to return to Venezuela on Monday, in spite of threats against his and his family’s life.

February 27 — Government sources reveal that, desperate for cash, the Maduro government surreptitiously removed roughly $500 million in gold from the Central Bank last week in a bid to sell it abroad illegally. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s oil inventories have hit a five-year high as the regime is unable to sell the little oil it’s been able to produce due to U.S. sanctions, forcing laden tankers to sit idle and Maduro to dip into precious metal reserves. At the end of 2018, the government reported 140 tons of gold in the Central Bank vaults, the lowest level in 75 years.

Today also marks the 30th anniversary of the event known as the Caracazo, a fateful string of days during the Carlos Andrés Pérez administration when, under the blanket of Marshall Law, troops killed several hundred civilians. The event is considered a pivotal moment that contributed to the rise of Hugo Chávez.

February 26 — U.S. oil refiner Citgo breaks with parent company PDVSA in order to be in compliance with U.S. sanctions. Citgo is the eighth-largest U.S. refiner and was, until today, the crown jewel of Venezuela’s foreign assets.

Meanwhile in New York, the UN Security Council holds meetings on the crisis in Venezuela. While the United States and several European countries urge action on aid and elections, Caracas allies China and Russia along with South Africa push back.

The number of Venezuelan military members who’ve defected and now recognize Guaidó as their commander-in-chief is over 320, doubling since Saturday, according to Colombian migration officials. One soldier tells reporter Dylan Baddour that “90 percent” of the ranks want Maduro to fall but don’t break ranks out of fear. The Colombian foreign minister says there are “serious threats” against Guaidó and his family should they return from Bogotá to Venezuela.

As pressure mounts on the regime, word gets out that two children of chavista power broker Diosdado Cabello were flown to Beijing over the weekend.

February 25U.S. Vice President Mike Pence meets with Guaidó, Duque, and others at Lima Group meetings in Bogotá and announces new U.S. sanctions as well as $56 million in aid. While the White House and the Venezuelan opposition seem the most determined to up the ante militarily against Maduro—with both Guaidó and Pence echoing an “all options” on the table line on Monday—leaders from Brazil, Chile, and Colombia each rule out foreign intervention on their part.

Back in Caracas, the Maduro administration detains high-profile Univision journalist Jorge Ramos and his six-member crew after an interview the president sours. The government confiscates the Univision host’s tapes and equipment and holds the team for several hours, eventually releasing the team but not their equipment.

February 23 — The plan to forcibly bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela is met with lethal force. Venezuelan armed forces and armed civil gangs known as colectivos kill six people—four along the border with Colombia and two in the Brazil border area—in clashes with those accompanying the aid and protesting the Maduro regime, bringing the weekend’s total fatalities to eight. Venezuelan security forces fire rubber bullets and tear gas across the border into Colombia at those protesting for the aid to be let in. Reporters later find shotgun shells as well.

Images of trucks laden with aid burning on the Tienditas Bridge dominate social media that day, though there was dispute as to who or what started the fires. In any event, while the supplies burned, Maduro dances at a rally in Caracas. By day’s end, around 160 members of the armed forces have defected.

With attention on the borders, the Maduro administration transfers Juan Requesens, a jailed congressman from Guaidó’s party, from the infamous Helicoide prison to the Palace of Justice for a preliminary hearing after his August 2018 detention.

That evening it’s announced that Freddy Superlano, also a congressman in Guaidó’s party, and his cousin Carlos Salinas were poisoned at a restaurant in Cúcuta, Colombia, that morning. Salinas passes away, though Superlano survives and files a claim with the Colombian authorities that they investigate what he said was an assassination attempt. The Maduro administration claims the two were poisoned by prostitutes in the border city.

February 22 — British business mogul Richard Branson hosts the Venezuela Aid Live benefit concert on the Tienditas Bridge on the Colombia-Venezuela border. Presidents Mario Abdo Benítez (Paraguay), Iván Duque (Colombia), and Sebastián Piñera (Chile) join Guaidó at the event. Chavistas, meanwhile, host a rival concert on the other side of the bridge, attended by fewer people, and many of those in uniform.

While the concerts played out amid high hopes for the following day’s plans to deliver humanitarian aid, two members of the Pemón indigenous group are killed by Venezuelan troops near the Brazil border, and another 14 injured in clashes as the community tries to forestall a convoy on its way to the border to block aid.

February 4 — After Maduro fails to respond to the call for new elections by the previous day’s end, 13 European countries announce they will now recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s head of state.

January 28 — The United States issues sanctions on $7 billion worth of assets held by state-owned oil firm PDVSA. National Security Advisor John Bolton says the measure could lead to an estimated $11 billion in export revenue losses for the Maduro regime.

January 23 — At a rally in Caracas, Guaidó administers the oath of office to himself, citing the Venezuelan Constitution. The people in the crowd also raise their hands and take an oath to defend the democracy, in accordance with another article in the Magna Carta.

That day, the Trump administration announces the United States will recognize Guaidó instead of Maduro, with several other countries following suit.

January 22 — The deadly secret police known as the FAES raid poor, formerly chavista-friendly neighborhoods and begin terrorizing residents in an attempt to intimidate them so they won’t turn against the Maduro regime and attend the opposition’s rally the following day. In the next two weeks, at least 43 people will be killed by security forces and another 900 arrested.

January 11 — Guaidó, the newly elected speaker of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled legislature, calls Maduro a “usurper,” and says that the presidency is effectively vacant. Guaidó says he’s ready to assume the office on an interim basis, per the constitutionally mandated order of succession, until new elections can be held, and he encourages Venezuelans to attend rallies across the country on January 23.

January 10 —Maduro’s second, six-year term begins. Just four Latin American presidents attend his inauguration: Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, El Salvador’s Salvador Sánchez Céren, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. They were joined by the prime ministers of Saint Kitts and Nevis and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. The only other heads of state in attendance were from the de facto and partially recognized Caucasus states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

January 4 — Thirteen members of the Lima Group—including neighbor Colombia and not-too-long-ago allies Argentina and Brazil—announce that they won’t recognize Nicolás Maduro’s second term when he’s sworn in the following week due to the fact that his May 2018 election “lacked legitimacy,” among other reasons. The group affirms its recognition of the National Assembly as a democratically elected constitutional institution. Mexico, under the leadership of new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was the only member that did not sign the letter, instead calling for dialogue.

This timeline was originally published on February 27.