Sham election to ensure more Venezuelans flee or suffer gravely

Sham election to ensure more Venezuelans flee or suffer gravely
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The farewell message came from Caracas, received by a group of high-school classmates on WhatsApp, the messaging service that allows Venezuelans to stay connected as their country falls apart. 

With simple words, the text powerfully conveyed the acceptance of hopelessness, the surrender to the reality that the Venezuelan tragedy is not likely to have a happy ending:

“My dearest friends, I am writing to tell you I am moving to Madrid. For those of you who remain in Venezuela, I wish you the greatest of luck and that this regime does not last much longer. To those who are already abroad, I wish you success and I hope to see you in Spain. A strong hug and thanks for your friendship."

Messages like this one, from my old friend Carlos Clemares, have been written by countless Venezuelans.

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Carlos couldn’t put off the heart-wrenching decision of abandoning his homeland any longer, so he joined the 5,000 Venezuelans estimated by the United Nations earlier this year to be leaving the country every day. They are joining the 3 to 4 million who have left Venezuela in recent years, triggering the worst refugee crisis Latin America has ever seen.

 

And they’re still leaving in droves, even though Venezuela is holding a presidential election on Sunday.

Normally, people who oppose a government would be hopeful an election would bring change, especially when the incumbent president has a 20-percent approval rating.

Change should be a certainty in a country where people are starving; where many die of curable illnesses because basic medicines are unavailable; where everyone faces hyperinflation that’s soon expected to exceed 13,000 percent; where they’re afraid to go out because the murder rate is the world’s second-highest; and where the government doesn’t know a human right it hasn’t violated.

What nation could possibly re-elect a man who has presided over the world’s worst economic catastrophe in the 21st century? Sadly, recent history shows that hoping democracy will bring change is for countries other than Venezuela.

When the opposition overwhelmingly won parliamentary elections in 2015, President Nicolas Maduro illegally packed the Venezuelan Supreme Court with allies, empowering himself to ignore actions taken by the newly-elected National Assembly.

In 2016, when the opposition collected millions of signatures for a recall referendum that would have certainly booted Maduro from office, his electoral council declared the petition invalid.

By 2017, Maduro had abandoned all pretense of democracy. First, his Supreme Court took over the powers of the National Assembly. When an international outcry and massive protests ensued, he temporarily backed off.

The massive protests lasted months, but Maduro’s repressive forces used violence and arrested thousands of political opponents, weakening the opposition.

He then doubled down and announced the formation of an all-powerful constituent assembly. Polls showed 85 percent of Venezuelans opposed it, but Maduro ignored them and proceeded with an unconstitutional election.

The results were so ludicrous that the electronic polling company Smartmatic, which had counted the votes in all elections in Venezuela for a decade, pulled out, accusing Maduro of altering the results.

Maduro followed that with gubernatorial elections in October. The results were even more absurd. Early, credible reports showed the opposition winning a majority of the governorships. But the results were changed, giving Maduro allies a large majority.

There is no question that the results of Sunday’s sham election will be whatever Maduro and his henchmen decide they are, no matter whom Venezuelans vote for.

And Venezuelans have few choices. Maduro has outlawed various political parties and banned the most popular leaders, Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles, from running.

With international support, the real opposition has boycotted the election and remains divided on whether Venezuelans should show up to vote at all.

Henry Falcon, the main candidate opposing Maduro, defied the boycott. He is a former acolyte of Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor and patron saint, who briefly split from the “Chavistas,” supposedly to join the opposition. Many observers believe he’s colluding with the government and is willingly being used to make a farcical election seem real.

So, again, the Venezuelan regime is following the communist Cold War playbook, using a charade of democracy to create a veneer of legitimacy, just as “elections” are still used by Cuba and North Korea.

What happens after Maduro’s reign is extended? Ironically, it may do little to cement his power. The humanitarian crisis is worsening and the economic free fall is so dramatic that fissures among his ruling class may get wider.

Oil, Venezuela’s lifeblood, may be the straw that breaks Maduro’s back. Despite having the world’s largest oil reserves, catastrophic management has devastated the industry, lowering production to half of what it was when Chavez took power in 1999. It’s still fast declining because its infrastructure is crumbling and underpaid workers often don’t show up.

Record oil prices during Chavez’s rule allowed him to use the windfall to buy the Venezuelan military’s loyalty. Even though prices have recently surged, the decline in oil production means Maduro can’t afford to keep buying the support he needs. Enlisted men are going hungry, and their extended families are suffering like all Venezuelans.

The military is Maduro’s Achilles heel. I’m among the many who have argued that cohesive, strong international sanctions aimed at sowing division among Chavistas, including the generals, is the only way to return Venezuela to a functioning democracy.

Instead, sanctions have been haphazard, poorly coordinated among the Americas and the EU, while undermined by Russia, China and Cuba.

However, Canada and major Latin American countries, through the Lima Group, are being more proactive in their efforts to find a peaceful exit. And the new American secretary of State already seems more engaged than his predecessor.

Meanwhile, my former classmate Carlos wrote to me this week, now from Madrid. He said he told his wife that “in Spain, we know that we are better off today than we were yesterday and that we will be even better tomorrow; while in Venezuela, we knew that today was worse than yesterday and that tomorrow would be worse than today.”

Thirty million Venezuelans are living in hopeless desperation, knowing tomorrow will be worse than today, while their leaders shamelessly enjoy the fruits of a criminal dictatorship.

It’s said that every nation gets the government it deserves. No country, no person, deserves the government that has brought Venezuela to its knees.

Antonio Mora (@AMoraTV) is the editor-in-chief of NewsandNews.com and a lecturer at the University of Miami School of Communication. He is a former news anchor for "Good Morning America" and a 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.