In 2018, Nicolás Maduro rigged a presidential election and declared himself the victor. We rightly consider that election, and its result, illegitimate.
Late last year, Mr. Maduro’s regime ran a tailor-made process, neither inclusive nor free and fair, to elect a National Assembly to his liking.
Earlier this year, that body, which the United States in no way recognizes as legitimate, in a process completely controlled by the regime, began to again change the rules of the Venezuelan electoral game, this time focusing its attention on local and regional elections.
Although they in truth lack the legal authority to do so, they began a process of selecting new members of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, the CNE. The resulting body, ostensibly neutral and technocratic, has, as it must in such a system, a majority controlled by Maduro partisans.
The burden for showing that the regime could allow and administer free and fair elections this year rests with Mr. Maduro. He and those who support him have failed to meet that burden, perhaps because they fear facing Venezuelan voters under fair and transparent conditions.
His regime has manipulated voter rolls; disallowed some opposition candidates from standing for office, without reason or justification, harassing others, and their supporters. It has unfairly disqualified political parties and seized control of others to create zombie candidacies to confuse and distract voters, befuddle the process, and atomize the opposition vote. It has limited the ability of prominent candidates of the political opposition to campaign and has stifled opposition access to the media. They have done all of this out in the open, bald-faced, for all to see.
More than 250 political prisoners remain unjustly detained. Conditions for free and fair elections in Venezuela do not exist. Mr. Maduro has already failed that test, as I think most fair-minded observers and his democratic opponents at home knew he would. Still, many of his democratic opponents decided to stand for election, to put themselves before the people of Venezuela, despite the evident unfairness of the process.
Few if any democratic activists or candidates regarded the November 21 process as an end in itself. They have said that they regard this as an opportunity to organize and mobilize democratic activists across Venezuela, at a grass roots level, a hard challenge in authoritarian Venezuela.
These democratic opponents of madurismo, and voters that opt for participation, choose to engage as a small step, just an incremental step, toward democracy. The real objective must remain – and we fully support this – truly free and fair elections for president, and for a renewed and democratic National Assembly, in accordance with Venezuelan constitutional norms and internationally-recognized standards.
November 21 represents just a moment in that process, in no way an end in and of itself. It will not provide an accurate read of Venezuela’s mood, or of the will of the Venezuelan people. Given the terms under which the regime will conduct the process it certainly will provide no accurate measure of popular support for Mr. Maduro or for those who support him.
So, how does this all work in practice?
Let’s look at a few practicalities:
- In some jurisdictions, such as Miranda just outside of Caracas, but not only there, Maduro’s democratic opposition unified their candidacies before the established deadline, November 11. In theory, that streamlines the ballot and allows one opponent to challenge one madurista, but an electoral council controlled by the regime has yet to accept the validity of these changes. Voting takes place in just a few days; the uncertainty seems guaranteed to undermine the opposition.
- In Miranda, two opposition forces have unified. The gubernatorial candidate of the Democratic Unity Table (MUD), Carlos Ocariz, has resigned his candidacy, endorsing Fuerza Vecinal candidate David Uzcátegui. They have asked the CNE to recognize that fact, but the CNE continues to ponder whether to recognize this unified opposition.
- This looks like the PSUV managing an election, not working to win one.
Now, some opposition candidates may win office. If they do, I expect to see Mr. Maduro holding them out as proof of the legitimacy of his process. We should welcome their participation in Venezuela’s public debate, engaged in the arena despite the unfairness and the long odds, but in fact, the process Maduro has created will only let them operate on the margins.
The regime will have once again deprived Venezuelans of their right to participate in an impartial, free, and fair process. It lacks the confidence in its own message, its own purpose, to such a degree that it has grossly skewed the process before a single voter has cast a single ballot.
And the world watches.
The European Union has sent an Electoral Observation Mission to Venezuela. The Secretariat of the United Nations has sent a technical panel of electoral experts to evaluate the electoral system, although not a public evaluation of the electoral results. The Carter Center has likewise deployed a limited international electoral expert mission to Caracas to assess important aspects of the electoral process.
How they talk about what they see will surely shape the international community’s conversation about the process.
If they look closely not only what they see on Sunday, but also on all that has preceded the vote, I think that they will find that Maduro’s candidates have operated under on set of rules, and Maduro’s democratic opponents have operated under a much harsher, less fair and just set of rules.
I think their engagement holds out some promise for the future if the shortcomings that they identify in the present process can serve perhaps as the rough draft of a roadmap for real reforms to rebuild the electoral system before Venezuelans next go to the polls.
That brings us to negotiations. We know that Maduro walked away from the Mexico City talks, citing as a pretext the extradition from Cabo Verde to the United States of Alex Saab.
Mr. Saab’s case is a matter for our criminal justice system, in no way a legitimate part of this process. We think that he needs to come back to the table, to sort out Venezuelan problems with his Venezuelan opponents; we know that when he does, representatives of the Unitary Platform, and of Venezuela’s only legitimately elected political leader, Juan Guaidó, will meet him there.
The agenda remains clear:
- Vaccines and the public health; hunger and humanitarian relief; protection of and respect for civil and human rights.
- Venezuela’s humanitarian situation remains dire, the migratory and refugee crisis keeps growing, the economy continues its downward slide; Venezuelans deserve better.
- Judicial and political reform.
Let me touch briefly on the value of Unitary Platform, and what it says about Venezuela and the promise of its future.
We tell a story here in the United States about Benjamin Franklin and the signing of our Declaration of Independence. On signing the document, he reportedly said, “We must all hang together,” he reportedly said, “or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
The Unitary Platform has shown a determination to hang together, for the sake of Venezuela and the promise of a democratic future.
Mr. Maduro and his supporters work ceaselessly to divide Venezuela’s democrats because they know that united, they can bring change, reform, and recovery.
It represents Venezuelan democratic forces in the negotiations, but it also represents mobilization, and hope. We respect those legitimate aspirations, and so that’s where we stand.