16 September 2020

The EU must not legitimise Venezuela’s sham elections

By R Berg and J Gonzalez-Gallarza

In a cruel twist of fate, this December Venezuelans will see in the fifth anniversary of the opposition’s electoral landslide with an election stage-managed by the dictator they had hoped to defeat.

On December 6, 2015, the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD), a big tent opposition party, captured a resounding 56% of the vote to take control of Venezuela’s National Assembly. But those who thought that would mean the restoration of democracy were left sorely disappointed.

Nicolás Maduro decided that if his party could not succeed in one legislature, he would simply set up a new one, the Constituent Assembly. In theory this talking shop is tasked with rewriting the constitution, but really does little more than rubber-stamp presidential diktats.

Despite international pressure, the Maduro regime has survived through unconstitutional gimmicks, a severe crackdown on dissent, and lucrative illicit markets in gold and drugs to replace lost oil revenue. Against the backdrop of the most precipitous economic collapse in peacetime history, Venezuelans are told they get yet another chance to vote in an election where the result has been pre-ordained.

Whatever ends up happening three months from now, the Maduro regime’s behaviour has made abundantly clear that it will not be a repeat of 2015. Authoritarian regimes rarely permit elections they are not guaranteed to win, and Maduro’s is no exception. Rigged elections and a National Assembly returned to Maduro’s control would allow him to consolidate his autocratic advances.

The most bizarre plot twist, though, is that the European Union may be about to offer its blessing to this sham of an election. Recent reports suggest the bloc helped broker an agreement between Maduro and the more malleable share of the opposition—headed by two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles—for a token release of 100 political prisoners as a gesture of “goodwill” in the lead-up to December’s vote. It barely needs saying that this would be a dreadful error of judgment from Brussels, one that risks legitimising Maduro’s despotic rule while also undermining the opposition the EU ostensibly wants to support.

Even more puzzling is the call from Spain – where hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have sought refuge – for “democratic guarantees” from the regime. Looking at these pronouncements it’s hard to escape the conclusion that certain Western politicians are in denial about the true nature of Maduro’s government. Asking for ‘democratic guarantees’ from someone like Maduro is like asking Genghis Khan to respect border controls.

It is precisely because Maduro’s defeat and the prospect of democratic restoration are so infinitesimal, that a united international front is so crucial. This is where the EU’s ambiguity over the December 6 vote is so at odds with the image it promotes abroad as a bulwark for democracy and human rights. If the EU endorses elections under these conditions – or worse, appears to “negotiate” for them – it will expose its rhetoric on human rights and democracy promotion as nothing but lofty platitudes.

Even Maduro’s invitation to receive an “election-accompanying mission”  – far less robust than the EU’s usual “election observation mission” and on shorter notice than the six months required to prepare adequately – risks providing a patina of legitimacy to Maduro’s inevitable victory. Rather than playing a central role in facilitating a political transition, the EU has permitted oil giants Repsol and ENI to continue doing business in Venezuela and continues to bleat about “dialogue” in a vain effort to score diplomatic points.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s new Foreign Policy Chief, appears less interested in restoring power to the Venezuelan people than he is in brokering an agreement – however half-baked – so he can claim to be a ‘mediator’ between Maduro and the less principled part of the Venezuelan opposition. In Maduro’s parody of democracy, not only does he get to rule indefinitely, but he also selects which political parties get the right to lose. The real opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, has made clear his disdain for the process by refusing to take part in the election.

Borrell has called for the vote to be “transparent, inclusive, free and fair” but notably stopped short of concrete demands like the freeing of all political prisoners and the dismantling of Maduro’s police state. It’s also worth noting the risk of interference from Turkey’s similarly authoritarian government – an ally of Venezuela’s socialist cabal since the days of Hugo Chávez.

So what should the EU do?

In general, its approach so far has been far more reactive than constructive. Brussels has so far been reluctant to sanction individuals on any systematic level and European companies still do brisk trade with Venezuela’s energy sector. The EU and the US are at loggerheads over individual sanctions designations – resolving that impasse would make for far more effective multi-lateral pressure on Maduro and his cronies.

The likes of Borrell must also qualify their warm words about “dialogue” with demands for significant concessions from the regime. There should also be concerted action to sanction Venezuelan criminal elements operating within the EU’s borders.

Nor have EU members always enforced their own rules properly. Spain’s socialist government, for instance, held a meeting on the tarmac of Madrid’s main airport with Maduro’s vice president Delcy Rodriguez earlier this year, despite her being barred from entering the bloc. On the humanitarian front there is clearly more to be done too, given that over 5 million refugees have fled Venezuela – though the pandemic is understandably uppermost in people’s minds, it should not be beyond the wit of Europe’s leaders to organise a fresh donor conference to drum up aid for millions of impoverished people fleeing a gruesome regime.

Unfortunately, it seems any moves to do more will have to be led by centre-right governments, as many on the European left still have a lingering affinity for Chavismo, reflecting the strong relationship they had with the strongman when he was alive. The EU hierarchy also appears wary of US-led efforts at political transition in Venezuela, with Borrell referring to US efforts in Venezuela as “cowboy diplomacy”.

As far as December’s elections are concerned, the EU must follow the rest of the Western world in denying Maduro the international recognition he craves. That can only mean one thing – siding unequivocally with Juan Guaidó’s boycott.

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Ryan C. Berg is a Research Fellow in Latin America Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Jorge González-Gallarza Hernández is a senior researcher at Fundación Civismo in Madrid. They are the authors of a forthcoming report on the EU’s role in the Venezuela crisis.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.