FPI Bulletin: Venezuela’s Election in Peril

December 4, 2015

In elections this coming Sunday, Venezuela’s democratic opposition may break the ruling party’s 15-year hold on the National Assembly. Polls show that the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is currently trailing by double digits. An opposition victory could check the power of President Nicolás Maduro, the successor to Hugo Chávez, the populist autocrat who died in 2013. However, Maduro has suggested that regardless of the vote’s outcome, he will find a way to maintain power. “If some negative circumstances come to pass,” he has warned, “I will go to the streets to fight with the people and the revolution would move on to another stage.”

Whatever happens on Sunday and in the days following, the election will be a milestone for Venezuela. It has revealed overwhelming domestic dissatisfaction with Maduro who presides over a tanking economy, violence, and official corruption. The election has also elicited unprecedented international criticism of Maduro and support for democracy in Venezuela. Any attempt by Maduro to subvert the process must be met with a principled response.

The opposition’s strong position going into the elections comes despite arrests and politically motivated prosecutions, violence by security forces, and the regime’s control and censorship of the media. Several top opposition leaders are in jail or disqualified from participating in the election. One of them, Leopoldo López, is serving a 14-year prison sentence after being accused of fomenting violence at opposition demonstrations that left 43 dead in 2014. Astonishingly, the government claimed Lopez orchestrated violence through subliminal messages on social media. In October, Franklin Nieves, a regime prosecutor who has fled to the United States, called the López prosecution “totally political” and claimed that López’s arrest and prosecution were planned well before the events the regime used to try to discredit him. An opposition politician was shot to death on December 1 at a rally attended by Mr. López’s wife Lilian Tintori.

It’s not difficult to see why Venezuelans are turning away from the regime. According to a report in the Financial Times, Venezuela’s economy is in free fall:

“Shortages are rife and health services are collapsing. Triple-digit inflation — estimates put it at 185 per cent — is destroying social gains. Minimum monthly wages of 9,649 bolívars are worth only $10 at the black market exchange rate, less than in Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally. This year, the economy is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to shrink by 10 per cent, following a 4 per cent drop in 2014. Next year, it is forecast to shrink by 6 per cent.”

The popular verdict on Maduro and the Chavismo “revolution” was expressed by a former supporter whose husband was killed in a mugging. “This revolution was supposed to take care of us. Instead it is killing us, impoverishing us,” she told the Financial Times. “I will vote for the opposition because this government is useless, and dangerous.”

Things are so bad that pressure is coming from unlikely quarters. In an extraordinary November 10 letter, Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States implored Tibisay Lucena, head of Venezuela’s electoral authority, to fix the flaws in the electoral process and allow independent observers. Mr Almagro noted the problems – from ballot misprints to regime violence – “affect only opposition parties.” He rejected the idea that insisting on democratic standards constituted interference, writing “it would be interference if I were to ignore reasonable and justified claims; or if I were to look the other way.” On November 11, a group of 157 legislators from Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Costa Rica, Peru and the United States pressed President Maduro for a free and transparent election, including independent election observers and access to political prisoners. The Maduro government has nonetheless refused to allow election monitors from the OAS and the European Union.

Maduro has not faced criticism from fellow Latin American heads of state (although several former ones have spoken out). However, the president-elect of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, who will take office on December 10, seeks to suspend Venezuela from a regional trade body over the Maduro government’s violations of human rights and electoral abuses. Mr. Macri’s action, writes Daniel Landsberg Rodriguez, upsets the “unwritten designation of South America as a “judgment-free zone” regarding human rights practices.

Under the Chávez regime, Venezuela was considered one of the world’s “resurgent dictatorships” an informal designation that recognizes the concerted efforts of countries, including China, Russia and Iran, to challenge accepted democratic norms at home and abroad. Democratic gains in Venezuela at this election would strike a useful blow against them. Venezuela’s people bear the brunt of this struggle, but there are things the U.S. can and must do.

Last March, President Obama identified the situation in Venezuela as an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” and noted specifically the “erosion of human rights guarantees, persecution of political opponents, curtailment of press freedoms, use of violence and human rights violations and abuses in response to antigovernment protests, and arbitrary arrest and detention of antigovernment protestors.”

So far, the administration has sanctioned only seven officials: several military and police officials linked to violence as well as a prosecutor responsible for prosecution of the opposition politician María Corina Machado and the democratically-elected mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma.

The scale of the Maduro government’s persecution of the democracy movement, its monopoly of the media, and other abuses has produced many worthy candidates for sanctions. If Maduro tries to nullify an opposition victory, the U.S. should be prepared to act. That should include expanding sanctions against Venezuelan officials responsible for subverting the elections and for the prosecution and jailing of Mr. López and other political prisoners; providing more funds for pro-democracy activities; and joining with the Latin American democrats calling for Venezuela to live up to the standards the hemisphere has endorsed.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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