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HomeIn-Depth AnalysisVenezuela: Examining a Nation’s Downfall

Venezuela: Examining a Nation’s Downfall

By Gabriel Queiroz Imhoff*

Understanding Venezuela’s Past

Until the beginning of the 1980’s Venezuela was one of the four Latin American countries listed by the World Bank as a stable upper-middle-income economy. Venezuela was an oasis in a region plagued by unrest, constant insurgencies, and authoritarianism.

Not long ago the human rights’ vanguard and the richest country of the region during the 1960’s and 1970’s – thanks to the world’s largest proven oil reserves (20% of global reserves) –, Venezuela now faces another reality: famine, continuous unconstitutional political changes and consequently an economic and political chaos where the legislative power is unable to play its role. The twenty-five constitutions Venezuela has had (highest number in South America) display not only the practical effect of the structure of the nation’s constitutional law (namely, the absence of a legal mechanism permitting the partial amendment of the constitution), but also political disorder created by new leaders bringing in constitutional assemblies to legitimize their rule – an effort to reflect historical interest by charting the development of political institutions as a reflection to a new political power.

Venezuelan prosperity has continually been based around one commodity: oil. In the end of 1980’s, its dependency on oil was 74% of Venezuela’s export earning. With the fall of oil prices, 2/3 of Venezuela’s economy has disappeared – as a matter of perspective, during the Great Depression, Canada has lost 1/3 of its economy. The over dependence on oil has made Venezuela hostage of the international oil price fluctuation. Thus, a contradiction was shaped: while increased oil prices and greater state taxation increased state revenues since 1958, the flattening of production per capita and erratic investment were major contributors to the collapse of the 1980s and 1990s when global oil prices dropped.

The Chávez Phenomenon 1998-2013: Constitutional Change and Rhetoric

As an outsider who led a failed coup in 1992, Hugo Chavez was democratically elected in 1998. Chávez encountered a popular dissatisfaction and more importantly, a political system in advance state of decay. Facing this scenario, Chavez called a referendum on constitutional convention, which permitted a new framework for his new regime. Similar to a political pact, a constitution is a quintessential functional institution that actors that draft and sign envision to restrain the power of their counterparts and expand their own – in this case scenario, the president had its power extended by, for example, augmenting the presidential term from three to six years. This is an important chapter of Venezuela’s modern history as the new 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela breaks the then-prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy in South America influencing countries such as Bolivia.

In a recent panel discussion organized by the Canadian International Council (CIC), former Canadian Ambassador to Venezuela Ben Rowswell explained that Chavéz has evoked four claims to address the Venezuela’s chaos. The division between poor against rich – instead of bridging them, he drew a further significant division; sovereignty under attack by the U.S.; governing through emotion (Chavéz had this incredible ability to easily connect with people); and, institutions are part of the problem, instead of the solution. Through these four points, Chavéz has built a populist narrative that has heavily characterized his 14-year rule distributed over four democratic exercises. Albeit important social changes were made and considerable successes in his first two mandates were achieved, explained Rowswell, not only the government did not try to diversify its economy, but Venezuela’s dependence on oil jumped from 74% of the country’s exports in 1998 to about 95% nowadays. Chavéz left an ambiguous legacy of triumph, uncertainty and economic ruin, his popularity on the other hand, has been steady until his death. His “21st century socialist revolution” was a unique experiment of power fueled by charisma and bountiful of oil revenue.

Nicolas Maduro: Power Quest over Policy Change

The Chavista populist rhetoric continued over president Nicolas Maduro’s mandate and the horrific economic recession was not addressed through policy changes, but through the quest of more concentrated power. As the shadow of its predecessor and following a similar path, although with less charisma and popularity, Maduro focused on demoralizing the opposition and consequently, evoking a constitutional assembly in order to expand his own power over key institutions by taking control of the supreme court and consequently striping the unicameral National Assembly’s constitutional powers.

As both of his presidential campaigns – 2013 and 2018 – were denounced to be fraudulent by most Latin American countries and the United States and its allies, Maduro’s cast for the judiciary branch worsened the country’s constitutional crises. In 2015, the lame duck National Assembly did not carry the expected legal procedures and, in a hurried process, appointed a new Court. The determination to shape a new Court lied on the outcome of the parliament’s election which resulted in the legitimate victory of the opposition in the National Assembly (112 of the 167 seats). In other words, Maduro wanted to control the judiciary before the new members of parliament (MP) take office and, consequently, losing the control over the legislative branch.

The controversial and unconstitutional appointments by the then incumbent member of parliaments is an anti-democratic and authoritarian step. Thus, in 2016, the newly elected parliament had its power erased. Such changes have determined a war against the political mechanism of checks and balances that characterizes a healthy democracy.

The Failed Juan Guaidó’s Coup and America’s Role

Venezuela’s economic isolation led the country to lose over 47% of its economy between 2013 and 2018. The humanitarian situation is increasingly critical. According to a recent internal UN report , 24% of the Venezuelan population, or 7 million people, need humanitarian assistance. There is no doubt that American sanctions in 2017 and 2019 aiming at weakening Maduro have worsened the condition as the U.S is Venezuela’s biggest customer – 41 percent of Venezuelan’s oil export goes to America. Severe shortages of medicine, food, and basic goods have forced an estimated 3 million people to leave Venezuela. The government of Maduro has responded by acting increasingly in an authoritarian manner, since he still holds the military. Facing this scenario, the leader of the opposition and president of the General Assembly Juan Guaidó has proclaimed himself acting president – recognized by 54 governments including key regional players, such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia. The risk of U.S. intervention has increased especially after the failed coup by Guaidó and his supporters in April 2019.

For practical reasons, the coup failed. The lack of support not only from citizens of Venezuela, but more importantly, from high-ranking military figures was a crucial point, which reflected the poor articulation of the opposition and its weak connection with the populace.

Change is a must for Venezuela, however, neither U.S. intervention, nor Guaidó’s adventurism for a coup will bring the expected positive change. Such reckless actions would only amplify Venezuela’s problems and lead the country towards civil war, worsening the humanitarian chaos. As former Canadian ambassador Rowswell has noted, the West should press for talks between the president and the opposition, along with legitimate political change. In absence of US leadership and lack of appetite in the White House for multilateralism, Canada and its allies in the Lima Group should bridge the gaps between different political factions in Venezuela and support a peaceful resolution through dialogue. Coups and foreign military interventions will only escalate the situation in Venezuela with potential destabilizing repercussions for the entire region.

* Gabriel Queiroz Imhoff is a student of International Relations at the University of British Columbia. Originally from Brazil and Switzerland, he has a broad range of international experience. In 2018, Gabriel worked for the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Rio de Janeiro . He was assigned to a large range of duties that focused on the Swiss-Brazilian diplomatic relation and on the political/economic analysis of the last Brazilian election. More recently, Gabriel was part of the Indian Election Watch Team at Asia Pacific Foundation.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author.

Additional Sources

Latin America: An Introduction by David Close

Constructing Democratic Governance in Latin America by Jorge Dominguez and Michael Shifter.

Photo from María Alejandra Mora (SoyMAM) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor