The final countdown

The UK stumbles in the dark towards a no deal Brexit, and the walls are closing in on Venezuela’s beleaguered President Nicolas Maduro

UK Prime Minister, Theresa May
UK Prime Minister, Theresa May

Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister has been one of the most remarkable in recent memory, if not all for the right reasons. Any one who was going to take up the mantle of UK Prime Minister after David Cameron knew that they were getting a poisoned chalice, and would have to endure a baptism by fire. It was always going to be a difficult job, and for that, she deserves some credit.

However, despite putting on a brave face throughout, May has spent the better part of the last two and a half years trying to square the circle that is the UK’s exit from the European Union. Her strategy to foment some form of working plan had some flaws – instead of engaging upon a consultation exercise across the UK, with all levels of society and with the country’s opposition parties, she sought to conduct a consultation exercise that left her firmly in control of the Brexit narrative and trajectory. Had she negotiated a deal which obtained support in Parliament, it would have been called a determined and heroic effort. Unfortunately for her, the agreement which took 20 months to negotiate and conclude was rejected outright by not only the Labour-led Opposition, but also by a significant number of her own party.

On Tuesday evening, the British Parliament voted to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union in order to come to a different arrangement on the Irish backstop. This agreement would keep the UK in a Customs Union until some as yet undefined date in which a more permanent solution, which avoids a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, can be found. The EU has already said that it will not consider reopening the Withdrawal Agreement for further negotiations with the UK, meaning this effort seems to be in vain.

The UK Prime Minister cannot find a way in which to satisfy her Conservative Party, her Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party allies, the British Parliament and the EU 27 all at once. The problem should be seen for what it is – Theresa May, through no fault of her own, cannot unify the disparate voices within the Tory Party. This was why David Cameron stepped down as Prime Minister the day after the Brexit referendum result was known. He knew that the vote would expose deep fissures within his party that could not be repaired.

With the UK due to leave the EU on the 29th of March, time is running out for May to strike a deal with the EU. Before now and then, she will face a stark choice, one which she has faced several times already. The British Prime Minister will have to choose between saving her party from either splitting or losing the reins of government, or seek to find an agreement which is beneficial for the UK and acceptable to the EU. She may not be able to do both.

Venezuela is in a state of crisis. Its economy suffers from hyperinflation, and its overdependence on oil prices has seen the government’s income plummet in recent years. Close to 90% of the population live close to, or below the poverty line. Economic mismanagement has been a death knell for a country which is considered to have the largest amount of proven oil reserves in the world. On paper, it should be an economic powerhouse. But under Nicolas Maduro’s reign, it has been anything but.

Maduro has ruled Venezuela with an iron fist since coming into office in 2013. He has faced numerous street protests in both 2015 and 2017, which may have given him some confidence in his staying power. But he now faces a more concerted effort to oust him from power by Juan Guaido, the President of the National Assembly, who has unified a previously fragmented opposition against the Maduro regime, and Guaido has received the backing of a number of foreign powers, including the United States, Canada, Brazil and Colombia.

The people of Venezuela are desperate for an end to the economic and human catastrophe that has gripped their country since 2015, during which time the national economy shrunk by half, and has led to millions fleeing the country. A further two million people are expected to flee the country in 2019, which would join the three million who have fled in recent years. Combined, this would constitute more than 15% of the country’s population, illustrating the depths of despair faced by ordinary Venezuelans.

The Venezuelan military will be key to Maduro’s grip on power. To date, Maduro still has the backing of the armed forces, and he is likely to continue governing for as long as they are on his side. There have been suggestions that the Trump Administration may consider military action against Maduro’s government, but less than 20% of Venezuelans support foreign military intervention. In addition, Russia and China have been vocal in their support of Maduro, given their heavy investment in the country’s oil infrastructure in recent years they would strongly oppose any move by the US which lessens their influence in the country’s future. American military intervention is unlikely, but with its support of Juan Guaido, it has made efforts to divert Venezuelan assets held in US banks away from Maduro’s control, and into Guaido’s.

The situation in the country is likely to deteriorate before it gets any better. President Maduro shows no signs of wanting to step down, despite the increasing pressure from both inside and outside of the country. With its oil wealth, Venezuela has the potential to be a regional powerhouse with the ability to influence global oil markets at will and would be able to provide a good standard of living for its people. With Maduro and Guaido acting as proxies for China, Russia and the United States, the country is spiralling further into instability. But Maduro, who has kept power by rigging national elections, is facing his most pointed challenge yet. Time is running out for his regime. A lot will depend on just how much support each side receives from their external supporters, and just which side the Venezuelan military ends up siding with.

For the sake of its people, the situation in Venezuela needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.

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