Venezuela’s Sham of an Election – The Crisis Deepens
Venezuela’s ongoing economic crisis shows no signs of abating. Despite the fact that the country has the world’s largest oil reserves, for the fourth straight year, Venezuela has been in economic turmoil with the economy continuing to contract. The economy has shrunk by more than 30 percent since the collapse of oil prices in 2014, and the oil industry itself is collapsing. Venezuela’s inflation rate is by far the world’s highest, set to reach 13,000 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. – Sanjay Badri-Maharaj*
Amidst almost universal condemnation and criticism, President Nicholas Maduro was unsurprisingly declared the victor of the Presidential elections held on 20th May 2018. Fourteen ambassadors have been recalled and the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States, the Lima Group, and countries such as Australia and the United States have all rejected the electoral process.
This rejection was due to widespread allegations of irregularities over the election schedule, the purported powers of the Constituent Assembly to call Presidential elections and impediments placed in respect of the participation of the country’s major opposition parties. On the other hand, Antigua and Barbuda, Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, El Salvador, Iran, Russia, Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Syria and Turkey have recognized the election results.
Official figures claim that President Maduro received 67.8% of all votes cast, winning all twenty-three states and the capital district. His rivals, Henri Falcon of the Progressive Advance and Javier Bertucci, an Independent, received 21% and 10.8% of the votes cast respectively, at least according to official figures. Both Opposition candidates have rejected the results.
Low Turnout – Disputed Figures.
Compared to a turnout of nearly 80% in the 2013 Presidential elections, which Maduro won by a narrow margin, the 2018 elections had an official turnout, according to the National Electoral Council (CNE), of 46.07% with Opposition estimates suggesting lower figures of between 17% and 26% with generous estimates putting it at under 33%. In either case, these figures represent the lowest in Venezuela’s electoral history and cast serious doubt upon the mandate of President Maduro.
In addition to the low turnout, there was a boycott by the main Opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). This is in part due to the fact that the majority of popular leaders of the MUD and other members of the opposition could not apply for the elections because of administrative and legal procedures. The Maduro regime went so far as to disqualify his main rivals from participating in the presidential elections.
This disqualification applied to Henrique Capriles (candidate in the 2012 and 2013 elections), Leopoldo López, (sentenced to almost 14 years of prison during the 2014 protests), Antonio Ledezma (arrested in 2015 and later placed under house arrest), Freddy Guevara (whose parliamentary immunity was removed and fled to the residence of the Chilean ambassador), and David Smolansky (currently in exile), as well as María Corina Machado and Miguel Rodríguez Torres, former defense minister and former supporter of Hugo Chavez who is also incarcerated.
Furthermore, the main opposition political parties were disqualified after they were forced to re-register themselves for a second time in less than a year by the National Electoral Council (CNE).
This was ostensibly due to their not participating in the 2017 municipal elections. The parties Popular Will and Puente refused to do so, while the CNE prevented Justice First from re-registering. Only Acción Democrática (Democratic Action) – part of the MUP – was revalidated – led by Henry Lisandro Ramos Allup. It was anticipated that Allup would be the main rival to President Maduro and some in the Opposition suggested that Maduro wanted Allup to be the MUP candidate believing that he was less popular than other leaders.
However, in late January 2018, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice blocked the revalidation of the MUP as a single entity. Finally, Justice First was disqualified weeks just a few from participating in the presidential race in early February 2018, leaving only Democratic Action and other minor opposition parties. The boycott of the elections by the MUP led to only minor opposition parties participating and paving the way for Maduro to score an easy victory.
Continuing Economic Chaos
Venezuela’s ongoing economic crisis shows no signs of abating. Despite the fact that the country has the world’s largest oil reserves, for the fourth straight year, Venezuela has been in economic turmoil with the economy continuing to contract. The economy has shrunk by more than 30 percent since the collapse of oil prices in 2014, and the oil industry itself is collapsing. Venezuela’s inflation rate is by far the world’s highest, set to reach 13,000 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
An estimated one and a half million people have fled the country since 2015 – with both Colombia and even the tiny island of Trinidad recording substantial numbers of Venezuelans entering their respective countries. Smuggling of goods into Venezuela has become a lucrative enterprise with foodstuffs, baby care products and basic amenities such as sanitary pads and toilet paper being smuggled from Trinidad into Venezuela in exchange for a lethal combination of hard currency, illegal narcotics and firearms. This has exacerbated violent crime in Trinidad.
Venezuela’s once effective health care system is in serious disarray with even mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, which had once been once almost wiped out, are soaring. Perhaps as much as three-quarters of the population has suffered involuntary weight loss of 20 pounds or more with people scrounging for food in garbage being altogether too common. Unemployment exceeds 17 percent and is approaching 20 percent. There are extensive shortages of medicines and the ability of many wage-earners to buy food is doubtful. For the first time in many years, extensive malnutrition, and a substantial number of child deaths arising therefrom are being noticed in Venezuela’s public hospitals. Infant mortality has increased a hundred-fold and maternal mortality has increased five-fold between 2012 and 2015.
A Bleak Future – No Easy Way Forward
Even as the economy collapses and the country is increasingly isolated, President Maduro will take solace from the fact that countries such as China and Russia – which have extensive interests in Venezuela’s oil industry – have recognized the election results. However, such solace is delusional as neither country has either the ability or inclination to offer tangible assistance to Venezuela. China at best might extend an agreement providing for the repayment of Venezuela’s loans from China on favourable terms. It is unlikely to lend fresh funds to the country. Food assistance has been rejected by the Maduro regime and in such circumstances, the situation for average Venezuelans will continue to deteriorate.
However, the Maduro regime has totally subverted every institution in the country and has so neutralized any Constitutional or legal challenge to his rule. The Supreme Tribunal of Justice (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia – TSJ), for example, is controlled by the Chavista supporters of Maduro. While its processes and independence are supposedly guaranteed by Article 264 of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and by Article V of the Organic Law of the Supreme Court (LOTSJ), the Maduro government has disregarded these safeguards and staffed the TSJ with his supporters.
President Maduro seems to have also successfully co-opted the military by placing military officers in charge of food distribution to new oil and mining projects. Of the 32 members of the Maduro Cabinet, 13 are from the military, and of the “Chavista” governors several are military personnel. In this way, Maduro has to a large extent insulated himself from any military coup. As an aside, it should be noted that by regional standards the Venezuelan military is large, well-equipped and adequately trained. Any external military intervention would be an impractical and costly affair, not to mention politically untenable without local support.
The biggest weakness in Venezuela is a divided and ineffective Opposition. Its boycott strategy has not proven to be effective with the boycott of mayoral polls proving to be counter-productive, enabling the government to be able to exclude opposition parties from contesting the Presidential elections. Finally, the Opposition also suffers from a lack of credible and coherent leadership with most of its capable and popular leaders either being incarcerated or in exile with their successors being incapable of toppling Maduro.
*Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj was a Visiting Fellow at IDSA. He is an independent defense analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a Ph.D. on India’s nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team.