Venezuela’s sham election — it's time for a new strategy

Venezuela’s sham election — it's time for a new strategy
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In defiance of the strongly stated views of most of Venezuela’s neighbors, President Nicolas Maduro’s regime held a presidential election Sunday. Most of the opposition did not participate.

The national electoral council declared Maduro the winner by a comfortable margin, claiming that 48 percent of eligible voters participated and that Maduro garnered more than 60 percent of votes cast.

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This was not a victory for Maduro and his dwindling band of hardliners.

 

Abstentionism of more than 50 percent in the Hugo Chavez/Maduro era is unprecedented and many independent analysts suggest abstentionism may have been much higher. The near total control of virtually all state institutions in the country makes all statistics released by the government highly unreliable.  

This election demonstrated two things. First, Maduro and company are determined to defy the international community and to hold onto power despite their lack of popular support, the country’s economic collapse and the still unfolding humanitarian crisis. However, the fact that they held an election suggests the regime is still convinced that a fig leaf of legitimacy is important to them.

Second, the majority of Venezuelans do not support the regime and even more importantly, they no longer trust state institutions. The abstention levels only tell part of the story. The recent spike in the outflow of refugees is also significant. More than a million Venezuelans have already abandoned their homeland and it is anticipated that many more will follow, becoming a huge burden on Venezuela’s neighbors, especially Colombia and Brazil.

The refugee flows also suggests something else: Venezuela’s increasingly desperate masses are also giving up hope in the international community's ability to pressure the Maduro regime to change its economic policy, restore political freedoms and respect human rights.   

Dissatisfaction with the performance of the Maduro government has grown since the death of Hugo Chavez. With Maduro's ascension to the presidency in 2013, the government has become decidedly authoritarian. Condemnation from around the hemisphere, Europe and the United States has had little effect.  

Fourteen Latin-American countries — known as the Lima Group, representing most of the population of the region — the U.S. and the European Union have all denounced this election as illegitimate.

The regime went ahead with what most characterized as an electoral sham anyway. Some observers in the region and elsewhere see in Maduro’s determination to hold a vote a stratagem to further consolidate his position at the head of the government before, some predict, ushering in reforms that will transform the political system into something resembling the Cuban model.

Not surprisingly, many Venezuelans are not willing to hang on any longer to see what the regime has in mind for the future. 

So, refugees continue to surge out of Venezuela. According to most international financial institutions, inflation has reached 14,000 percent and is still climbing. Severe shortages of food and medicine make daily life a misery and usually curable medical conditions a death sentence.

Oil production has plummeted to below 1.5 million barrels per day, less than half of what it was when Chavez was elected in 1998. International aid organizations fear the country is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe.

The government, however, denies there is a crisis and refuses to allow humanitarian assistance into the country.  

The question many are now asking is what the international community can and will do about it? The upcoming General Assembly of the Organization of American States, scheduled for June 4 to 5 at the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., will be an important test of the region’s willingness to close ranks and make a difference. Many of these same countries that called on Maduro to suspend the election have already announced they will not recognize Sunday's results. 

Mere disapproval of the Maduro administration’s record of repression, incompetence and corruption has not made much of a difference so far. It is hoped that the region will close ranks and come up with a more effective strategy when they come together in Washington in two weeks.

The U.S. has been sanctioning high-ranking individuals in the Venezuela government for several years. Last summer the U.S. also blocked Venezuelan access to the U.S. financial system to limit the Maduro regime’s ability to contract new debt. The U.S. strategy of targeted sanctions has clearly not worked. 

This is, in part, because the U.S. has been acting nearly alone. It is time for others in the region — as well as in Europe — to join with the United States and take concrete steps to pull Venezuela back from the brink. Clearly pronouncements of disapproval absent concrete measures won’t do it.

Patrick Duddy is the director of Duke University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Duddy previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and as deputy assistant secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere.