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For a moment, a few hours early on Tuesday in Caracas, it felt like change was finally at hand, and that Venezuela was on the verge of liberation from the disastrous political leadership of President Nicolas Maduro and the economic implosion he has overseen.

Opposition leaders stood with a small cadre of military men. There had been talk the country’s top officials were poised to abandon Mr. Maduro. There were rumours he was about to flee, on a plane said to be waiting to take him to Havana.

So far, that has not come to pass. Even as thousands of weary Venezuelans took to the streets on Tuesday and Wednesday, it soon become clear Mr. Maduro still had the backing of much of the military. On Thursday morning, Mr. Maduro underlined his position. He rallied and marched with a large military contingent in Caracas. On Twitter, he denounced an opposition he labelled golpistas – coup plotters.

And so the agony of Venezuela continues. It is difficult for outsiders to appreciate how terrible the situation has become. Venezuela’s economy has led the world in declines each year since the start of 2016. More than three million people – a tenth of the population – have fled, mostly to neighbouring Colombia and Brazil. Nine of 10 people in the once relatively prosperous country live in poverty.

The country sits atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves, but the size of the Venezuelan economy has been reduced by half since 2013. The health-care system has essentially collapsed. There are vast shortages of food and medicine. Inflation is estimated this year at 10,000,000 per cent. That means prices are doubling every several weeks. The average person’s savings have been immolated.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido – who in January was sworn in as interim president, under an article of the country’s constitution – presses on. He has the backing of more than 50 countries, including Canada. But despite the external pressure, including sanctions, Mr. Maduro has hung on to power. Thanks to the continued support of the military, whose leaders are among the few beneficiaries of his reign, he retains monopoly control of food distribution.

The situation is such that Mr. Maduro’s exit has become necessary, and just. He has lost the support of Venezuelans. His economic record is worse than abysmal. And his re-election in 2018, after he barred an opposition that was likely to win, was illegitimate.

Outside of Venezuela, the crisis has lined up countries on predictable lines – the United States against Russia. Mr. Guaido also has support from much of Latin American and most of Europe. Mr. Maduro has stoked the spectre of imperialism and on Thursday declared his military backing is prepared to defend “national sovereignty.” But the democratic world largely rejects the legitimacy of his rule.

The United States has a long history of misguided interventions in Latin America, which is why Washington’s call for Mr. Maduro’s removal has some reflectively defending him. But the case against Mr. Maduro, and for the interim leadership of Mr. Guaido, followed by new elections, is overwhelming.

The how of it remains a riddle. Some observers suggest the situation has hit a stalemate and counsel a period of reflection, as the strategy of putting pressure on Venezuela, and coaxing the military to shift allegiances, has not yet worked.

The pressure is significant – and the cost for Venezuelans has been high. The United States has long been Venezuela’s No. 1 market for oil; last year, imports were roughly 600,000 barrels a day. However, in March, the U.S. began turning off the taps; for three weeks, the volume of oil imported from the South American country was zero. In recent weeks, the figure is back up to about 200,000 barrels a day – still far below the previous level of U.S. oil purchases from Venezuela.

Washington this week floated the possibility of a military intervention. That would be a mistake. There is already the risk of escalating political violence. The removal of Mr. Maduro should ideally be done by Venezuelans, and come from inside Venezuela. Mr. Guaido is calling on people to keep up their protests in the streets. A general strike of public workers is possible. But after this week, after the hope of change flickered and faded, the country’s pain grinds on. Convalescence, when this dark chapter finally ends, will take years.

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