Venezuelans Prepare to Vote as Maduro Looks to Consolidate Power
Voters go to the polls on Sunday to choose a new National Assembly, while the country’s dwindling opposition has called for a boycott.
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Venezuela prepares for National Assembly elections on Sunday, the United States sanctions two major Chinese firms, OPEC+ countries agree to a slight oil production increase.
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Venezuela Votes as Opposition Boycotts Election
Venezuelans go to the polls on Sunday in a National Assembly election that is likely to extinguish the country’s opposition following months of electoral maneuvers by the government.
In 2015, the last time such elections were held, opposition parties won in a landslide victory. The win paved the way for the ill-fated Assembly President Juan Guaidó to attempt to take power by declaring himself the rightful leader of the country. More than 50 countries followed in recognizing Guaidó’s claim in 2019.
Five years later, due to a decision to boycott the vote, neither Guaidó nor traditional opposition politicians are on the ballot this time around. Over the summer, Venezuela’s Supreme Court handed over the leadership of the country’s main opposition parties to government loyalists, and those party names will still appear on the ballot on Sunday. A new assembly dilutes Guaidó’s claim to control in Venezuela as he’ll no longer be the most recent president of the assembly.
Turnout in the sanctions-ravaged country is expected to be low despite government attempts to entice voters to the polls, including a promise of “special prizes” to the communities with the highest rates of turnout.
A new U.S. approach? Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has expressed his desire to open “decent, sincere, direct channels of dialogue” with the Biden administration, and hopes to overcome the “minefield between the government of the United States and Venezuela” left by Donald Trump.
President-elect Joe Biden has not signaled any drastic changes in U.S. sanctions policy toward the country, although he does plan to open the door to Venezuelans and to address the country’s humanitarian crisis. On a campaign stop in Florida in October, Biden promised to grant temporary protected status in the United States to Venezuelans fleeing their homeland.
Guaidó gone? Reuters reports that the shadow government led by Juan Guaidó is being scaled back, although members of the group still maintain their legitimacy citing the authenticity of the 2015 election versus the one on Sunday, where United Nations observers will not be present.
Guaidó will hope to get off to a better start with Biden than he did with President Trump, who took to calling the would-be leader the Beto O’Rourke of Venezuela, after the failed Senate and Democratic presidential candidate. Guaidó said he has not yet made contact with Biden and his staff, but has made approaches to other U.S. politicians.
What We’re Following Today
China blacklist grows. The Trump administration has added two major Chinese companies, computing chip maker Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC) and China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), to its growing security blacklist, which now includes 35 Chinese firms. By being named on the list, they are deemed by the U.S. Department of Defense to be aiding the Chinese military and are henceforth banned from accessing U.S. technology and investment. The Pentagon began compiling the list in June, and more companies are likely to be added before Trump leaves office on Jan. 20.
Egyptians released. Egyptian authorities have released three employees of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the few independent human rights organizations still operating in the country. The trio’s arrests garnered worldwide attention in November, with Antony Blinken, the nominee for U.S. secretary of state, sharing his concern on Twitter. The move comes as two Washington-based groups, the Center for International Policy and the Project on Middle East Democracy, called on Biden to impose strict human rights conditions on the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. security assistance to Egypt.
Oil ticks up. OPEC+ countries have agreed to increase oil production slightly in January, in a sign of guarded optimism about a global economic recovery. The size of the increase—just 500,000 barrels per day collectively—is far smaller than the last production increase of 2 million barrels per day in August. “We need to be in a cautious mode,“ Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said following the meeting, adding that a lot will depend on whether vaccination programs are successful. “We are not in the business of gambling,” he added.
Milley’s musings. As the House and Senate send a bill authorizing the defense budget to President Trump’s desk, the top U.S. military officer has ideas for how to reduce it. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the joints chiefs of staff, suggested on Thursday that putting U.S. troops permanently in allied countries needed a “relook” as the U.S. Defense Department faces the prospect of a shrinking budget in the face of the coronavirus-driven economic downturn. Speaking to the United States Naval Institute, Milley specifically mentioned the U.S. troop presence in Bahrain and South Korea as needing review, citing the cost and bigger U.S. footprint caused by military families stationed there.
Overall, Milley said the U.S. military had “too much infrastructure overseas and too much permanent infrastructure,” but was pessimistic about moves being taken to address the issue at the political level. “Frankly, there’s not a lot of enthusiasm to do what I just said, but I do think that’s necessary,” he said. The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that the total cost of U.S. overseas bases and deployments was $24.4 billion in 2020.
Keep an Eye On
Cameroon votes. Cameroon will hold regional elections on Sunday in an attempt to quell separatist sentiment in the country’s English-speaking regions. The vote is a long-delayed implementation of a 1996 law aimed at decentralizing the government, ruled by President Paul Biya for the past 40 years. As R. Maxwell Bone argued in Foreign Policy recently, the move is a “fig leaf” that offers too little, too late. Cho Ayaba, a separatist leader, has called for anyone “collaborating with Cameroon” in organizing the elections to be arrested.
Moldova’s power struggle. Moldova’s parliament has voted to strip its pro-European President-elect Maia Sandu of power over the country’s intelligence services, just months after handing over the same powers to her predecessor Igor Dodon. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Chisinau to protest the move. Sandu accused her opponents of trying to hide from corruption inquiries and wanting to throw “the voice of the people into a landfill” following her recent election victory. As Nicolae Reutoi argued last month in FP, the surprising victory of a pro-European candidate is an indication of the Kremlin’s waning influence over Russia’s near-abroad.
Odds and Ends
A man named Adolf Hitler Uunona has won a landslide victory in a local election in Namibia, taking a council seat in the Ompundja constituency in the north of the country. It’s unlikely voters in the former German colony were swayed by his unusual name, however, as his middle initial was abbreviated to “H.” on official candidate lists. Speaking to German press, Uunona said that although his father had chosen the name, he “probably didn’t understand what Adolf Hitler stood for.”
That’s it for today.