The editorial board

When Nicolás Maduro was sworn in by Venezuela’s Supreme Court for a second six-year term as president on Thursday, a notable judge was missing. Christian Zerpa, a one-time Maduro ally, recently fled the country. Interviewed this week in Florida, the former Supreme Court justice called Mr Maduro’s government “disastrous” and, more importantly, “illegitimate”. It was a crucial legal point. By the end of this week, the US, Canada, and most European and Latin American countries will not recognize Mr Maduro’s presidency as legitimate either. Venezuela is in social, economic and political freefall. Its institutions have been suborned by Mr Maduro and his inner circle.

The legal basis of his second presidential term is the elections in May last year, which most of the world, although not Russia, China or Turkey, declared to be fraudulent. As a result, so too is his presidency. To put the situation baldly: if Mr Maduro were removed from power next week, many international powers would not treat it as a coup as they never recognised the presidency in the first place. Mr Maduro’s swearing-in for a second term, therefore, marks a tipping point for the country. Greater international isolation is a given. Although military intervention has been all but ruled out, South American attitudes are hardening, especially in neighbouring Brazil under its rightwing president Jair Bolsonaro.

An escalation of sanctions on Venezuelan officials deemed guilty of corruption and human rights abuses is likely. Also possible, if more extreme, is a ban by the Trump administration on US companies selling the dilutants and other chemicals that Venezuela needs to blend with its otherwise unmarketable heavy crude. If that happened, and the country could not find substitutes elsewhere, around 300,000 barrels a day, or one-quarter of current production, would be affected. That would be a major financial blow, with undeniable social consequences. It would reduce the financial aid that Venezuela can provide to Cuba in return for military intelligence. It would also underline the costs to the Venezuelan military of their support for the regime.

Mr Maduro has managed to co-opt the generals through patronage and state-sanctioned corruption. That will become harder as the economy inevitably worsens, with or without sanctions. The international illegitimacy of his presidency will also rob the military of the constitutionality they have hidden behind to justify their support. A Zimbabwe-style transition, led by a palace coup, is possible.