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The Implications of Guaidó’s

Claim to Presidency

by Richard Lin | Spring 2019

The Venezuelan political atmosphere has been fraught with tension, divide and corruption since the death of Hugo Chávez and the failures of his successor, Nicolas Maduro. The aftermath of 2018 elections signal a possible shift for the better, with Juan Guaidó challenging Maduro’s legitimacy as president. This article delves into the workings of Guaidó’s challenge to Maduro, the ways in which he developed his own claim to presidency, and the implications that these events may have on Venezuela’s future.

From March 7th to March 14th of 2019, eighteen of the twenty-three Venezuelan states experienced severe blackouts that halted hospitals, transport services, internet availability and water treatment.[1] Major cities ran rampant with looting and violence; at least twenty-one people died.[2]

This humanitarian crisis sits atop a shattered Venezuelan political landscape, and in many ways, serves as a culmination of Nicolás Maduro’s political corruption and oversight.[3] Maduro, who succeeded Hugo Chávez as the president of Venezuela in 2013, was handed a teetering economy riddled with instability as a result of Chávez’s nationalization of oil and excessive populist spending. Despite the deteriorated economic ecosystem caused by Chávez’s methods, Maduro continued to push for similar populist policies that furthered the downward economic spiral of the country.[4]

Simultaneously, Maduro also began silencing vocal opponents, engaging in executions and detentions, and transforming the Venezuelan political landscape from a democracy into an authoritarian dictatorship.[5] This was exemplified by the controversial 2018 presidential election, which was plagued by electoral corruption. The election, which Maduro won by a significant majority, faced suspiciously low turnout numbers, a ban on the participation of the largest opposition parties, and an unconventionally early voting date.[6] Not surprisingly, the legitimacy of Maduro’s new term has been questioned. This is where Juan Guaidó enters the story.

Guaidó first made headlines in early January of 2019, as he became the youngest leader of Venezuela’s legislature, the National Assembly.[7] From this position, he quickly ascended to the head of the opposition against Maduro, and promised to spearhead a transitional government.[8] Among his promises, he vowed to bring democracy, humanitarian aid, and freedom from Maduro’s reign.[9] 

Then, on January 23rd 2019, Guaidó declared himself acting president. By February, a significant portion of the European and Latin American countries, as well as the United States, Canada and Australia, had recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president of the country. In a span of three months, Guaidó had effectively established himself as a significant player in this evolving political crisis and may be the key to restoring peace in Venezuela.

Guaidó’s claim to presidency did not involve armed force, an election, or consent from the sitting president. Instead, it was legitimized by the Venezuelan Constitution. Specifically, Guaidó referred to Articles 233, 333 and 350 in the Constitution, and used their built-in elasticity to establish a de jure justification for his presidency.

Articles 333 and 350 give a valid foundational basis for his actions. Article 333 provides a layer of security to powers of the Constitution in times of political upheaval:

 

This Constitution shall not cease to be in effect if it ceases to be observed due to acts of force or because or repeal in any manner other than as provided for herein.

 

In such eventuality, every citizen, whether or not vested with official authority, has a duty to assist in bringing it back into actual effect.[10]

 

This allows Guaidó to refer to and use the Constitution as a legitimizing force, regardless of Maduro’s claims. Then, Article 350 allows for a legal rejection of Maduro’s presidency:

 

The people of Venezuela, true to their republican tradition and their struggle for independence, peace and freedom, shall disown any regime, legislation or authority that violates democratic values, principles and guarantees or encroaches upon human rights.[11]

 

This gives him a legitimate right to denounce Maduro’s presidency despite the election results; Guaidó, as well as many others, claim that the election was rigged. Maduro’s act of creating his own legislature, the Constituent Assembly, without the expressed consent of the population, further supports this denouncement.[12] Thus, there is clear and sufficient justification for a violation of the democratic ideal.

In conjunction, these two articles prop up the strength of the Constitution as a legitimizing document while simultaneously delegitimizing Maduro’s rule and presidential claim. This sets up the perfect legal environment for the last and most significant article invoked by Guaidó: Article 233.

 

First, Article 233 establishes the conditions by which the president is deemed “permanently unavailable.” Among the conditions that trigger the unavailability tag, one is the “abandonment of his position, duly declared by the National Assembly.”[13] Given the electoral corruption, Guaidó and the National Assembly used Article 350 to disregard Maduro’s authority and declared that the position of presidency was vacant.[14] This formally establishes the vacancy of the presidential position despite Maduro’s claims.

 

Article 233 then establishes the protocol for replacing the presidential position given the “permanently unavailable” status:

 

When an elected President becomes permanently unavailable to serve prior to his inauguration, a new election by universal suffrage and direct ballot shall be held within 30 consecutive days. Pending election and inauguration of the new President, the President of the National Assembly shall take charge of the Presidency of the Republic.[15]

 

Seeing as Guaidó is the President of the National Assembly, by constitution, he becomes the acting president of Venezuela. The one issue with this decree, however, is the time limit. As written, Guaidó can only legally be the acting president for thirty days. However, Venezuelan lawyers have argued that “Guaidó can serve longer if the electoral process is scheduled within a reasonable time.”[16] Thus, Guaidó effectively established a solid legal justification for his claims to presidency.

 

This move by Guaidó has large political implications. First and most obviously, it legitimizes his position. He does not fall victim to the controversy surrounding military coups and populist claims to power. By anchoring his rise to the presidential position to explicit constitutional procedures, his enemies lose a powerful angle by which to attack him.

Second, it cements democracy, legality and the political foundation of Venezuela as a critical part of this power challenge. This is not simply one figure overthrowing another, but rather a reaffirmation of the Venezuela political structure. It becomes an act of balance rather than an act of power.

Finally, if Guaidó succeeds in removing Maduro from power, Article 233’s call for a re-election will serve as a catalyst for the normalization of the political process. Given that Guaidó has promised to lead a transitional government toward democracy, it is reasonable to believe that he would willingly adhere to the Article 233’s protocol and hold a fair election. This process of a legitimate election will then become the first step toward a stronger, more honest and democratic Venezuelan political ecosystem.

REFERENCES

 

[1] Phillips, Tom. "Venezuela: Huge Power Outage Leaves Much of Country in the Dark." The Guardian. March 08, 2019. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/07/venezuela-hit-by-major-power-outage.

[2] Phillips, Tom. "Venezuela Blackout Has Killed 21 People, Opposition Leaders Say." The Guardian. March 11, 2019. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/11/venezuela-blackout-deaths-latest-news-caracas-opposition-claims-.

[3] Kurmanaev, Anatoly. "Venezuela, Seeking Blame for Blackout, Finds Culprit in Opposition Leader." The New York Times. March 12, 2019. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/world/americas/venezuela-blackout-Guaidó.html.

[4] Corrales, Javier. "The House That Chavez Built." Foreign Policy. March 07, 2013. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/07/the-house-that-Chávez-built/.

[5] Smith, Marie-Danielle. "Canada Introduces New Sanctions on Venezuelan Regime in Wake of Devastating Report on Crimes against Humanity." National Post. May 30, 2018. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/canada-introduces-new-sanctions-on-venezuelan-regime-in-wake-of-devastating-report-on-crimes-against-humanity.

[6] Neuman, William, and Nicholas Casey. "Venezuela Election Won by Maduro Amid Widespread Disillusionment." The New York Times. May 21, 2018. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/20/world/americas/venezuela-election.html.

[7] Houeix, Romain. "Maduro's Long Standoff against Venezuela's Parliament." France 24. February 03, 2019. Accessed April 11, 2019. https://www.france24.com/en/20190202-maduro-standoff-guaido-venezuela-parliament-usa-trump.

[8] Ana Vanessa Herrero and Nicholas Casey, "Who Is Juan Guaidó? Venezuela's Young Opposition Leader," The New York Times, January 22, 2019, accessed April 11, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/world/americas/juan-guaido-facts-history-bio.html.

[9] Mackintosh, Eliza. "European Nations Recognize Guaidó as Venezuela's Interim President." CNN. February 04, 2019. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/04/americas/europe-Guaidó-venezuela-president-intl/index.html.

[10] Venezuela. Article 333. Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. 1999.

[11] Venezuela. Article 350. Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. 1999.

[12] Casey, Nicholas. "Venezuela's New, Powerful Assembly Takes Over Legislature's Duties." The New York Times. August 18, 2017. Accessed April 11, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/18/world/americas/venezuela-constituent-assembly-maduro.html.

[13] Venezuela. Article 233. Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. 1999.

[14] Zambrana, Diego A. "Guaidó, Not Maduro, Is the De Jure President of Venezuela." Lawfare. March 05, 2019. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.lawfareblog.com/Guaidó-not-maduro-de-jure-president-venezuela.

[15] Venezuela. Article 233. Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. 1999.

[16] Zambrana, Diego A. "Guaidó, Not Maduro, Is the De Jure President of Venezuela." Lawfare. March 05, 2019. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.lawfareblog.com/Guaidó-not-maduro-de-jure-president-venezuela.