For Venezuela, Election Monitoring With a Wink and a Nod

Elections are coming in Venezuela — and President Maduro wants a friendly team from UNASUR to be the only observers.

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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has never been a fan of international election monitors. In 2004, during the tempestuous lead-up to an unsuccessful recall referendum against his iconic predecessor Hugo Chávez, Maduro (then a little-known lawmaker) warned foreign observers that they would have to “respect” national electoral authorities or else face deportation. “We cannot accept any more abuse from these people who come here with the impunity of the observer only to flout the rules and laws of this country,” he told his colleagues in parliament. “Nobody should be able to disrespect our laws.”

Today, Venezuela is bracing for legislative elections coming up on Dec. 6, and Maduro remains true to form. As voters confront soaring inflation, an acute cash crunch, and a soaring crime rate, the last thing he and his United Socialist Party want is foreign election monitors constraining them prior to the crucial vote. “We will not accept them,” Maduro declared at a Caracas press conference on July 28. “Venezuela is not being monitored, and will not be monitored by anyone!”

In fact, at least according to a Venezuelan Electoral Commission announcement from June 22, Maduro is allowing at least one international organization to visit Venezuela during the election: UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations. The group, which was founded in 2008 by Chávez and other South American leaders explicitly to counterbalance U.S. influence on the continent, dispatches electoral delegations to countries holding votes — but only to “accompany” the elections in question, not to monitor them. True to these stated aims, UNASUR does not make value judgments or challenge electoral procedures of its constituent states, offering instead a kind of knee-jerk solidarity — and, most importantly, a bit of potential cover.

For governments with nothing to hide, allowing outsiders close access to the electoral process can offer many benefits. When ostensibly neutral observers verify that a government is upholding electoral rules, this can help defuse illegitimate claims of impropriety by the losing party. Even before the vote, the very presence of observers can increase voter confidence in the system, potentially increasing turnout and strengthening the eventual mandate of the victor — not to mention confirming his or her legitimacy abroad.

Yet in a world where free elections and the broader concept of democratic governance are often erroneously conflated, even the most authoritarian regimes seek to cultivate a veneer of democratic legitimacy. Banning international observers outright is therefore quite rare, since doing so might be viewed abroad as tantamount to an ex ante confession of intent to cheat. As a result, some modern autocrats have devised another option: giving access to “election monitors” who can be counted on to provide amenable reviews, so as to better spin the situation when more credible observers point out violations.

In 2013, when Azerbaijan’s hereditary dictator Ilham Aliyev was reelected by a resounding margin of 85 percent, a remarkable number of election monitors, who were invited to observe, were happy to give their seal of approval to the vote — even though the national electoral authority had accidentally published the final results online a day before the election took place. So why were the monitors so tolerant?

Because, in contrast to more genuinely independent non-government organizations, these “monitors” were closely linked with Azerbaijan’s authoritarian allies in the region — and thus eager to legitimize the election despite such clearly undemocratic peccadillos. Baku’s state media subsequently devoted the bulk of its coverage to results published by these sympathetic observers, rather than to the far more critical findings from groups like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

International intergovernmental organizations have historically set the standard in election monitoring and often boast the best technical capacity, but they can come with baggage. For example, the oldest such organization, the 35-country Organization of American States, or OAS, is headquartered in Washington, and many Latin Americans still view it with suspicion as an unwelcome imperialist holdover from the bad old days of U.S. meddling in the region’s affairs. For example, the United States controversially spearheaded the expulsion of Cuba from its membership in 1962, refusing to allow it to rejoin until 2009. The body has at times acted against U.S. interests, such as ratifying the contested victory of leftist Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua’s 1984 election, not to mention giving its seal of approval to the 2004 recall referendum victory of Hugo Chávez himself. But when the OAS’s presence during an election would be inconvenient, governments are nonetheless able to contextualize criticisms of the organization into larger anti-colonialist narratives. Such tactics help explain its absence from the scene in countries like Venezuela (where Maduro recently accused it of “fomenting conspiracies” and called for its dissolution).

So despite having both the knowhow and the institutional fortitude to call countries out when necessary, the OAS is hardly popular in a neighborhood with more than a few glass houses, incentivizing certain member states to seek more pliable alternatives like UNASUR. As part of its effort to curtail U.S. influence, UNASUR has redefined “election monitoring” to fit snugly within a broader “judge not lest ye be judged” political agenda. In its charter, the organization explains that “electoral international accompaniment missions” visit countries in order to “witness the electoral process in a framework of respect, solidarity, cooperation, for the general know-how and experience in electoral matters, in favor of the electoral bodies of UNASUR member states.” In fact, Tibisay Lucena, the pro-government head of Venezuela’s electoral authority, herself recently served as chief of an “accompaniment” delegation to nearby Suriname — and, unsurprisingly, she very much liked what she saw!

Given this context, it’s quite clear that no one should expect UNASUR to keep an eagle eye on Venezuelan vote counts this December. Instead, a few scrupulously non-judgmental UNASUR officials will “accompany” members of the Venezuelan Electoral Council on Election Day tours of a few select polling places — but as bureaucrats on a field trip, not watchdogs. Needless to say, the prospect doesn’t bode well for the likelihood of a truly fair election. Ominously, even the Carter Center, the U.S. NGO that has previously (and controversially) endorsed Venezuelan elections during the chavismo era, recently announced that they had closed up their Caracas office.

So, if an election happens, and no one is there to observe it, does it make a sound?

The photo depicts a UNASUR meeting in Quito on March 14, 2015, called by Ecuador to denounce U.S. sanctions on Venezuela.
Photo credit: RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.