Venezuelans face 'Sophie's Choice' in Sunday's elections

Venezuelans face 'Sophie's Choice' in Sunday's elections
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Imagine living in a country where an overwhelming majority of voters elect an opposition-dominated legislature, but where the executive power immediately and illegally stacks the country’s supreme court with its supporters so it can invalidate almost everything the legislature does.

Imagine a country where the executive power and its accomplices in the country’s electoral commission unilaterally postpone elections for all local and state offices.


Imagine a country, where, a few months later, the governing party’s stooges on the supreme court decide that’s not enough and fully take over the powers of the legislature.


Imagine a country where that “self-coup” by the supreme court is followed by five months of massive protests against the unconstitutional move and where the government reacts by unleashing violent repression against its people.

Imagine a country where the government takes its power grab further, fully emasculating the legislature, calling for an unconstitutional election of an all-powerful Constituent Assembly, an election declared fraudulent by all objective observers and even by the international voting firm in charge of it.

Finally, imagine living in a country where the oxymoronic unconstitutional Constituent Assembly now decides it wants to hold state elections that will be overseen by the same unscrupulous electoral commission that defrauded the Venezuelan people just weeks before.

Venezuelans need not imagine any of it, because that is the reality they have suffered for the past two years and what they must deal with Sunday, when the dictatorship that tyrannizes them has decided it’s a convenient time for gubernatorial elections in the country’s 23 states.

To vote or not to vote is the question facing Venezuela’s opposition, which polls show is supported by approximately 80 percent of Venezuelans.

The dilemma arose in early August, as soon as the dictatorship called for the election. It immediately drove a wedge among the opposition.

Many called for a boycott, believing it was outrageous to even contemplate participating, because it could be seen as legitimizing both the Constituent Assembly and the electoral commission that has repeatedly rigged votes. Few believed the government would allow those elected to wield any significant power.

They also saw participating as an insult to the millions who protested for months, the dozens who died, the thousands who were injured and the hundreds that, to this day, remain as political prisoners, tortured and living under squalid conditions in government jail cells.

As a friend in the opposition wrote then: “If someone has tried to kill you and has screamed many times that he’d like to see you dead, would you give him a scalpel to operate on your heart?”

But others in the opposition jumped at the chance, no matter how remote, that the dictatorship would allow for a clean vote and respect electoral losses. There’s no doubt that in a legitimate election, pro-government candidates would lose in a landslide, with the opposition taking control of the large majority of governorships in Venezuela’s 23 states.

The argument in favor of participating is that no political power should be surrendered to the dictatorship and that it is worth engaging in the battle, even if it’s not a fair fight, if there’s any chance it could be a step toward the end of the Nicolas Maduro dictatorship.

It has not been and will not be a fair fight. At the last minute, the shameless electoral commission switched ballot sites for hundreds of locations, affecting approximately hundreds of thousands of voters, all of them in opposition strongholds.

The ballots themselves will include opposition candidates who lost in primaries, confusing voters and likely siphoning votes away from the real candidates. Other voter suppression is expected, including long lines at the polls.

Venezuelan media, much of it controlled by the dictatorship and its allies, has been trumpeting pro-government candidates and propaganda around the clock, while opposition candidates are mostly invisible or harshly attacked.

But the “Sophie’s Choice” that faced the opposition has become less difficult as the election neared. Prominent political prisoners held by Venezuela’s secret police courageously signed a letter urging their compatriots to turn out and send a loud message to the dictatorship. A growing consensus has developed among opponents that voting is the lesser of two evils.

Even so, optimism is tempered by realism. Pedro Mario Burelli, a former member of the board of PDVSA, the national oil company, who is a powerful opposition voice in exile in the U.S. told me, “Venezuela’s tragedy is no longer solvable by elections.”

But he also argued, “This Sunday’s vote should be seen as another form of protest which will be met by yet another round of abuse and illegality from what is now a full-fledged dictatorship.”

Diego Arria echoes Burelli’s comments. The former governor of Caracas and one-time president of the United Nations Security Council who also lives in exile in the U.S. wrote me saying he would choose not to vote because, “Voting would be tied to recognizing the illegitimate Constituent Assembly that called the election.”

He is also concerned any victory by the opposition would be pyrrhic because, “Maduro has declared that any elected governor who does not recognize the Constituent Assembly will be invalidated.”

Maduro may think the election is a win-win proposition. It puts on a show of democracy, especially if he recognizes opposition victories. That will provide the diehard socialists who defend the Venezuelan regime on the international stage with some ammunition to claim it’s not a dictatorship.

The opposition governors would have no power, subordinate to the Constituent Assembly and to the whims of Maduro and his pals on the supreme court. As Ambassador Arria argued, elected governors may not even be allowed to take office, because Maduro has said they must swear fealty to the Constituent Assembly, something opposition figures would be loath to do.

Of course, history could be repeated, and the dictatorship could ignore appearances, manipulate the electoral results and claim victory. Few would be surprised. The Maduro regime is shameless, and stealing an election would be low on the list of its crimes that have devastated what should be Latin America’s richest country.

The dictatorship’s human rights abuses are too many to mention, and it refuses to acknowledge Venezuela is suffering a major humanitarian crisis, something that would allow international aid to flow to its many starving people (Caritas has reported 35.5 percent of poor children under the age of five have symptoms of malnutrition).

Venezuelans are dying from easily-treatable diseases because of the scarcity of even the most basic medicines. Eradicated diseases have roared back, including tuberculosis, diphtheria, measles and a full epidemic of malaria, threatening the health of the whole hemisphere.

The nations of the world have passively witnessed the Venezuelan suffering. They have mostly done nothing to save Venezuelan lives in what was, until recently, one of the continent’s oldest democracies.

The world has also stood by, mostly in silence, as that democracy died. It will die again tomorrow, no matter what the “official” results are. What will it take for the world to take action?

Antonio Mora is a former news anchor for “Good Morning America,” former host of Al Jazeera America’s primetime international news hour. He is both a Venezuelan and American lawyer who appears regularly on television as a Venezuelan-affairs analyst.