Venezuela’s weekend presidential election results are in, and the winner came perhaps as no surprise to anyone.
Incumbent president Nicolás Maduro defeated both opponents, Henri Falcón (Progressive Advance Party) and Independent Javier Bertucci, securing another 6 years in office in an election denounced by many outside countries as illegitimate.
According to a Reuters report, turnout was much lower than in 2013, when elections were held to determine the successor to socialist revolutionary Hugo Chávez. The margin of victory was much higher, though, in spite of Maduro’s 20 percent approval rating:
Maduro won 68 percent of votes – more than three times as many as his main rival Henri Falcon. Turnout was a low 46 percent, significantly down from 80 percent in 2013’s presidential vote.
However, Reuters also notes that many in the opposition are calling this 46% figure inflated, while a source on the electoral board said that only 32.3 percent of eligible voters had actually cast ballots by 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) when most polls closed.
These numbers reflect the trending apathy among voters in Venezuela, who increasingly see their elections as meaningless in the face of corruption, betrayal, and a growing humanitarian crisis.
After two of its most popular leaders were barred from the election and several opposing political parties were banned, and with the election board being filled with Maduro loyalists, Venezuela’s mainstream opposition forces decided to boycott the election, calling on Venezuelans to stay at home on election day in protest of the blatantly fraudulent vote.
In fact, many opposition leaders criticized Maduro’s closest rival Falcón for breaking from their boycott and providing the election with the false appearance of legitimacy.
The Democratic Unity coalition, for example, condemned Falcón’s move in a “series of angry tweets,” proclaiming that “With this step, Henri Falcón abandons the (Democratic) Unity and the Venezuelan people’s democratic sentiment. We cannot legitimize a fraudulent election system. We call on Venezuelans to keep fighting for democratic change.”
Falcón dismissed these criticisms, asking “What do you gain from abstention?” and arguing that “In the history of the world, these governments always fall by decisive action — by the votes of their own people.”
The protests of the election are not without merit. As mentioned earlier, numerous “irregularities” have been reported leading up to the May 20 election, with the chiefest of these is the imprisonment or barring from office of four of the five most prominent opposition leaders prior to the election.
Also, the election was unilaterally called for by the National Electoral Council, which is responsible for many flagrant abuses among Venezuelan elections in recent years:
In one particularly galling move last year, the body declared a Socialist Party candidate the victor of a race for governor despite unambiguous evidence that he had lost — evidence produced by the council’s own voting machines. In a separate election months earlier, the IT contractor that ran the voting machines and its tallying system declared the council had conjured at least a million votes out of thin air — and was promptly fired for its trouble.
Another such abuse has been the government’s strategy of bribing voters with food:
It was so blatant that, in the weeks after the [municipal] election, the country was convulsed by protests from people angry they hadn’t received the traditional Christmas ham many had been promised in exchange for their votes.
The tactic is particularly repulsive given the recent food shortages in Venezuela. A report in The New York Times provides more details:
There are no official statistics on levels of food shortages. But the Encovi 2017 survey , conducted by leading Venezuelan universities across the country, indicates that 78.6 percent of respondents have eaten less due to shortages, 61.2 percent go to bed hungry and 64.3 percent percent lost an average of 11 kilos in the year. According to a study carried out in Caracas and in three states by the Catholic organization Cáritas Venezuela , moderate and severe malnutrition of children under 5 increased from 10.2 percent to 14.5 percent between February and August 2017. (Translation courtesy of Google Translate)
With hyperinflation running rampant (over 16,000% in some estimates) and food being scarce, minimum wage is insufficient to buy even the barest essentials. This mismanagement of government has left millions of starving Venezuelan citizens even more dependent on the state than before, with authorities now handing out subsidized food rations in conjunction with voting drives:
In 2016, the government began handing out bags of subsidized food, known by their acronym, CLAP, to fight off what it calls an “economic war” waged by Washington and other enemies. By some accounts, 70 percent of the population now rely on CLAP food to supplement their diets.
And during this election cycle, critics say the aid has become weaponized as part of a sophisticated and cynical get-out-the-vote machine.
At the heart of the government’s subsidy program is the “Carnet de la Patria,” or “Fatherland Card” — an electronic identification card — that Venezuelans often need to show in order receive their CLAP food, subsidized medicine and government cash bonuses.
On Election Day, millions of people will be encouraged to register those cards at booths run by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela that will be set up next to polling stations. There, organizers will scan the card and be able to see, in real time, who has voted — and roust those who haven’t.
The government says the Fatherland Cards are simply a high-tech way to make sure government subsidies are going to the neediest. And the system is completely voluntary.
But in a country where a majority rely on subsidies to stay alive, the system has become a powerful and pernicious electoral tool, said Luis Lander, the director of the Venezuelan Electoral Observatory, an election watchdog group.
“This is clearly being used to threaten voters,” he said, explaining that people fear that if they don’t vote, they might lose their government-subsidized food. The government insists the aid comes with no political obligations, but Lander said people are wary.
Venezuela uses electronic voting machines — and the Fatherland Cards are scanned electronically. And while there’s no evidence the systems are linked, the set-up seems designed to fuels doubts, Lander said.
During a speech before the election, Maduro hinted to supporters that those who showed up to vote with their “Fatherland Cards” would probably receive “a really good prize.”
For a more in-depth look at the 10 (at least) of these 11 possible pre-election “irregularities” that Venezuela has already committed under the Chavista period (1999-present), check out this study.
Reaction from the rest of the world has been swift and largely critical of the election process.
In a G20 Meeting of Foreign Affairs Ministers in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on May 21, for example, six countries (Argentina, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Chile, and the United States) said in a joint statement that they would not recognize the results of Sunday’s election:
“Taking into account the lack of legitimacy of the electoral process we do not recognize the results of (Sunday’s) election … which excluded the participation of some political actors,” said Argentina’s Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie.
United States Vice President Mike Pence called the election “a sham – neither free nor fair.”
Further, the US is “actively considering” oil sanctions on Venezuela, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told reporters on Sunday, stressing that “We need to make sure we adhere to our goal which is to target corrupt regime officials and not the people of Venezuela. We don’t want to damage the country in a way that makes it difficult to repair after democracy is restored.”
President Trump also signed an executive order on Monday prohibiting “the purchase of any debt owed to the Government of Venezuela” and restricting the ability of Venezuela to liquidate state assets in the US. He also released a statement calling for the Maduro regime to “restore democracy, hold free and fair elections, release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally, and end the repression and economic deprivation of the Venezuelan people.”
Much of the rest of the Americas, as well as Europe, also condemned the election, according to Reuters:
Other countries also hinted at sanctions, with Spain leading European Union criticism of the election.
And the 14-nation “Lima Group” of countries in the Americas, from Canada to Brazil, said in a stinging statement it did not recognize the vote and would downgrade diplomatic relations. The group deplored Venezuela’s “grave humanitarian situation.”
Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin congratulated Maduro on his victory, wishing him “success in resolving the social and economic issues facing the country” in a statement. Regional allies Cuba and Bolivia also sent congratulations, Reuters reported.
And in China, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told the media that “we believe the Venezuelan government and people are capable of handling their domestic affairs. In the meantime, all parties should respect the choice of the Venezuelan people.”
Why This Matters
Nearly two million refugees have left Venezuela since 1999. The worse conditions become under Maduro’s regime, the more immigrants will seek asylum in the United States.
Maduro is strongly anti-American, portraying his election as a victory against “imperialism.” It is not in the best interests of the United States for this attitude to spread.
In 2017, Venezuela was the fourth main supplier of oil to the United States, behind Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico. As the US is the main buyer of oil from Venezuela, US oil sanctions would cripple Venezuela’s economy, causing gas prices to increase domestically as well, and also making Venezuela more dependent on business with countries such as China and Russia.
And from a humanitarian standpoint, Venezuela’s people are facing immense suffering on a daily basis, brought about by the same policies Maduro promised to continue. While America should not be expected to solve everyone else’s problems, there are sound diplomatic strategies than can be implemented to the benefit of both countries. These will require leadership based on a firm understanding of and appreciation for the free market principles espoused by Reagan. And as all this has been conspicuously lacking in politics lately, one can only hope that the Trump administration is up to to the task.