Venezuela Is in Crisis. So How Did Maduro Secure a Second Term?

By Ana Vanessa Herrero and Megan Specia

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President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela is set to be inaugurated on Thursday.CreditCreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

By Ana Vanessa Herrero and Megan Specia

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela is set to be inaugurated on Thursday for the second time, extending his term in office to 2025, after winning an election last year that had been rejected by nations across the region as illegitimate.

He and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, presided over the free-fall of what was once Latin America’s wealthiest nation. The country’s economy continues to unravel at an alarming rate.

Violence and hunger have become emblematic of the years since he first took office, inflation has skyrocketed, and the migration of Venezuelans out of the country has reached unprecedented levels.

But even as his country is grappling with a humanitarian crisis driven by this collapse, Mr. Maduro has clung to power.

So how did he get here, and how has he managed to hold on?

Here’s what to know as Mr. Maduro begins his second term in office.

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People eat lunch at a free soup kitchen run by a Catholic church on the outskirts of Caracas.CreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

Mr. Maduro’s re-election in May 2018 was widely criticized, with reports of coercion, fraud and electoral rigging.

He first came to power in a snap vote following Mr. Chávez’s death in 2013, after the former leader had anointed him as successor.

But by the 2018 election, Venezuela’s economy had plummeted to new lows as a result of mismanagement and corruption, and the country was in the midst of a crisis.

Despite that, election officials said Mr. Maduro won 68 percent of the vote. The chaotic state of the country and the desperation of poor voters may actually have contributed to Mr. Maduro’s ability to maintain control.

Representatives of Mr. Maduro’s party tracked those who voted by registering their “Fatherland Card” — or national benefits card — and promised aid and government subsidized food handouts if re-elected.

Independent international observers were not on hand, and a crackdown on critics left several of them unable to participate. Opposition leaders called for a boycott of the election, and that, combined with the disillusionment of many longtime government supporters, meant the turnout was exceptionally low. Less than half of the country’s voters cast ballots.

Mr. Maduro’s stifling of dissent and targeting of the opposition has been widely reported. Since 2014, Human Rights Watch says, it has documented hundreds of cases of mistreatment of government opponents, including at least 31 cases of torture.

More than 12,800 people have been arrested because of links to anti-government protests, according to the Venezuelan human rights organization Foro Penal, including demonstrators, bystanders and people taken from their homes without warrants.

The two groups on Thursday released a report detailing the detention and torture of intelligence and security forces accused of plotting against the government.

Venezuelans waited in line to cast their vote for president.CreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

“We are convinced that the majority of the people who voted for the president in May are united today with loyalty and discipline to be with Nicolás Maduro for another six years,” he said.

But there are clear signs of growing discontent.

Recent desertions include Christian Zerpa, a Supreme Court judge and longtime government loyalist. He fled to the United States, denouncing Mr. Maduro as incompetent and the elections as unfair.

In August, Mr. Maduro was purportedly targeted in a bizarre drone attack. And the Trump administration held secret meetings with rebellious military officers from Venezuela over the past year to discuss their plans to overthrow Mr. Maduro, according to American officials, before deciding against aiding the plotters.

International sanctions and plummeting oil production have further weakened the already floundering economy.

On Tuesday, the United States announced new sanctions on government insiders involved in a currency exchange scheme that skimmed billions of dollars from the national treasury. The move was the latest in a campaign by the Trump administration to put pressure on Mr. Maduro ahead of his new term.

While the country’s opposition lost much of its power as a result of government persecution and the forced exile of some of its most prominent figures, the election last week of a new president in the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, has renewed calls to remove Mr. Maduro from power.

“We are going to effectively represent the people,” Mr. Guaidó said, “and we have plans to call the people to the streets in legitimate protest.”

Government supporters at a political rally for Mr. Maduro in Caracas.CreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

Mr. Maduro has found some allies in the region, including President Evo Morales of Bolivia, a fellow socialist who will attend the inauguration.

And Mexico’s new leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, invited Mr. Maduro to his own inauguration and has taken a friendlier stance in relations with Venezuela than his predecessor.

Russia has remained a staunch ally, with President Vladimir V. Putin voicing his support for Mr. Maduro during a December meeting in Moscow. A year earlier, Russia agreed to restructure some $3 billion in loans to prevent Venezuela from defaulting.

Venezuela has also received recent financial support from China. After Mr. Maduro visited Beijing in September, he secured $5 billion in loans.

Within his country, loyal “chavista” governors, named for their support of Mr. Chávez and his revolutionary leftist policies, expressed their support for Mr. Maduro in a news conference on Wednesday. Héctor Rodríguez, governor of the state of Miranda, denounced Mr. Maduro’s critics and urged the country’s opposition to “reconsider” their criticism of the leader.

Still, there has been widespread international condemnation of Mr. Maduro’s re-election.

Last week, 13 nations of the Lima Group — a multilateral working group of Latin American countries plus Canada that organized to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela — announced that they would not recognize the legitimacy of Mr. Maduro’s new term. The group urged Mr. Maduro to hand power to the National Assembly until another election could be held, in order to restore democracy.

On Wednesday, Mr. Maduro responded to the criticism in a national address saying Washington had ordered a coup d’état against his government and that the Lima Group was helping to coordinate it.

Patients at a small clinic in San Felix, Venezuela.CreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

Daily life in Venezuela has become unrecognizable from what it was a few short years ago. Where once the government built homes, clinics and schools for the poor as part of its socialist policy, people are now finding themselves without the most basic necessities.

The country’s health system has collapsed, leaving many without access to lifesaving medicine. Hunger is common, and the shelves of grocery stores lie bare. But there is no sense conditions are improving. The International Monetary Fund anticipates that Venezuela’s inflation rate will reach 10 million percent in 2019, becoming one of the worst cases of hyperinflation in modern history.

More than three million people have fled Venezuela since 2014, according to the United Nations migration agency, setting off a regional crisis that has left neighboring countries grappling with how to respond

Some of those who remain in the country have reached their breaking point.

Margarita Uzcategui, 64, who lives in what used to be a thriving neighborhood of Caracas, described water shortages and electricity cuts that can last for up to 12 hours.

“I never imagined I would have to live like this,” she said.

While she believes the government has failed her, she said she doesn’t trust the opposition, either.

“For me, this is the end. This has to be the end. If we are living like this now, imagine six more years,” said Mrs. Uzcategui. “We will have no food, water, electricity. God help us.”

Ana Vanessa Herrero reported from Caracas, Venezuela, and Megan Specia reported from New York.