Shadow Government

Now Is the Time to Save Venezuela’s Elections

The opposition is leading, but if the vote isn't free and fair, it won't matter.

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It is difficult to appreciate the level of socio-economic destruction that has befallen Venezuela through 18 years of chavismo, the socialist movement founded by the late President Hugo Chávez and continued under his hapless successor Nicolas Maduro. A good starting point, however, would be a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), Venezuela: Unnatural Disaster. The report describes “accelerating deterioration”:

A sharp fall in real incomes, major shortages of essential foods, medicines and other basic goods and breakdown of the health service are elements of a looming social crisis. If not tackled decisively and soon, it will become a humanitarian disaster with a seismic impact on domestic politics and society, and on Venezuela’s neighbors.

The catalyst may very well be upcoming legislative elections, scheduled for Dec. 6. Polls show the opposition poised for significant gains. Maduro’s popularity rating hovers around 20 percent, while fully 84 percent of Venezuelans believe the country is on the wrong path. Opposition candidates are backed by 56.2 percent of voters, compared with 29.8 percent for the ruling chavistas.

However, given chavismo’s well-established capacity to manipulate elections — it exercises a stranglehold over the electoral authority, the media, and government spending — as of today they are certain to trump public opinion in favor of the ruling party, thus igniting the sort of instability the ICG report warns against.

A crisis brought on by a contested election could be avoided if the government would allow technical teams from the Organization of American States and the European Union to begin a professional monitoring process as soon as is feasible. But Maduro has gone out of his way to dismiss such a prospect, recently stating, “Venezuela is not and will not be monitored by anyone. Our country won’t accept it ever.”

Instead, Maduro plans to rely on pliable representatives from the Chávez-created Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), who will be counted on to do nothing more than applaud the process on election day.

Chavista elections are never anything to celebrate, however. The latest State Department human rights report says such elections are characterized by “widespread pre- and post-election fraud, including electoral irregularities, government interference, and manipulation of voters,” while “opposition political parties [have] operated in a restrictive atmosphere characterized by intimidation, the threat of prosecution or administrative sanction on questionable charges, and restricted media access.”

The electoral climate this time around is even worse. Several leading members of the opposition, including Leopoldo Lopez, remain jailed on trumped up charges, while others, such as Maria Corina Machado, have been banned from being candidates.

The Organization of American States has already registered its concern, with newly installed Secretary General Luis Almagro offering the services of its very competent technical teams to observe the election. He was rebuked by high-ranking chavista Elias Jaua, who called him “anti-Venezuelan” and a “traitor.”

But while regional governments have been mostly silent about Venezuela’s slide into the abyss, others have not. A group of 26 former heads of state recently published an open letter registering their concern “for the difficult social, economic and political situation” in Venezuela” and urging the release of jailed political prisoners.

This is just the type of outside (read: non-U.S.) involvement that U.S. policymakers have been aching to see not only during the Obama administration, but the George W. Bush administration as well. Incredibly, though, just as we are finally starting to see others speak out about the intolerable and dangerous situation developing in Venezuela, the Obama administration has abruptly changed tack, by attempting a reconciliation with the Maduro government. Talk about pulling the rug out from underneath the 26 letter-signers, to say nothing of the beleaguered Venezuelan opposition.

Venezuela’s toxic brew of repression, economic chaos, criminality, and corruption poses direct threats to regional peace and security. The only peaceful exit is the electoral route, but those elections have to be free, fair, and impartial, and held in a climate of tolerance and absolute transparency. That can only be achieved by respected, international monitoring. Failing that, those who continue to remain silent or otherwise indulge the Venezuelan government’s intransigence will bear as much of the blame for the country’s implosion as do Chávez’s heirs.


José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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