Election Fracas in Caracas: how will the polls affect the crisis in Venezuela? By Omar Khan
“Yo me encargo,” declares Súper Bigote, bearing a striking resemblance to President Nicolás Maduro, before he sweeps in to save the Venezuelan people from the evils of American imperialism. The new superhero cartoon appeared on state television just days after Maduro’s ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) seemed to come out on top of Venezuela’s mega municipal elections on 21 November 2021 that saw over 70,000 candidates compete for more than 3,000 offices ranging from local councillors to state governors. The PSUV’s success was not surprising to those who consider Maduro an authoritarian dictator– Unfortunately, though, while they recognised several irregularities, the thousand or so international observers (many from the EU) reported “better conditions” than in previous polls. But were the elections really free? What do the opposition’s failures reveal about partly-recognised President Juan Guaidó’s leadership? And how will the results affect the negotiations in Mexico over Venezuela’s future?
These were the first elections in four years that the whole opposition decided to take part in rather than boycott. Despite this, Maduro’s PSUV won 20 out of 23 governor races and performed well across the board of regional elections. Guaidó called for “reflection” on the opposition’s shortcomings before his foreign minister resigned at the start of December, launching a scathing attack on the interim president. The results raise the perennial question that has been asked by three successive White House administrations and multiple EU leaders: how has Nicolás Maduro managed to stay in power?
Bolivarian aficionado Hugo Chávez pushed forward his controversial socialist agenda from 1999-2013 that saw a reduction in poverty and illiteracy, but also democratic backsliding and financial mishandling. His death triggered an emergency presidential election that Maduro won with just 50.6% of the vote, narrowly defeating Henrique Capriles. Having bankrolled the revolution on Venezuela’s vast oil reserves, US sanctions coupled with government mismanagement caused the bolivar to collapse. It lost 90% of its value and the country entered one of the worst economic crises ever seen.
Inflation hit 1,000,000% in 2018. GDP has fallen by 90% since 2012 and over 20% of the population has fled as refugees. Shortages of basic goods such as food, water and medicine have hit the people hard increasing instability, violence and crime. Since 2013, there have been more than 50,000 distinct protests against the Maduro regime which has regularly cracked down on vocal critics including journalists, politicians and foreign officials. The black market has flourished and the bolivar is essentially worthless – ironically, the US dollar circulates as the de facto currency. Food shortages are so severe that, in 2017, 64% of Venezuelans lost an average of 11.7kg – they called this the “Maduro diet”.
Until recently, the National Assembly was controlled by the opposition so when Maduro attempted to dissolve it in April 2017, 6,000,000 people came out to protest. The following year, Venezuela held another presidential election featuring banned politicians, intimidated journalists and bribed voters while the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (Unidad) boycotted the polls – unsurprisingly, Maduro won 68% of the vote. Triggering Article 233 of the constitution, opposition leader, Juan Guaidó swore himself in as interim president, a legal move if there is no president-elect. Of course, Maduro did not see it that way. Cuba, Russia, China, Iran and several other countries recognised the election as legitimate. The US, Germany, the UK and many others acknowledged Guaidó as Venezuela’s president.
Now, three years later, it is Guaidó, the one with powerful Western backing, who is facing calls to resign, struggling to consolidate his authority, and leading a weak resistance against Maduro. Despite Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” and Colombian President Iván Duque supporting the opposition, Maduro has not only stayed in power but strengthened his position in the most recent elections. The three key reasons for this are military support, controlling food supplies, and, scattered opposition.
Drug trafficking and gold smuggling provide Maduro and his inner circle with high income and revenues they use to keep senior military figures onside. The Venezuelan military ultimately holds the key to any successful ousting of the government but as things stand that seems incredibly unlikely – why bite the hand that feeds you? In addition to being bribed by Maduro, key military officials fear retribution from an opposition government or possibly even punishment for drug trafficking and human rights abuses. Instead of risking this, the military has pledged its allegiance to the regime and regularly assists it in brutally cracking down on protestors, politicians and even critics within the armed forces.
He who controls the food controls the starving. While the “Maduro diet” could have been enough to trigger a revolution, the regime handles all welfare programs including food supplies. It is a perverted form of government but threatening to starve people is an effective strategy. Red-point stations featured in the 2021 election: these were polling stations where government employees scanned a voter’s ID to check if they were on benefits in which case, they would have their welfare suspended if they didn’t vote for the PSUV.
In Miranda state, Capriles’ home state, the PSUV candidate won large – this was not because they were the most popular party or even because the people were forced to vote for them. They won because Unidad fielded two candidates and split their own vote. The inane divisions may make Western observers bang their heads against the wall, but it highlights the deep fractures within the opposition. Guaidó’s failed uprising in 2019 was lauded by some and heavily attacked by others. Upon his resignation two weeks ago, Julio Borges, the influential opposition foreign minister, called for the “notion of the interim government” to “disappear”. Guaidó is further weakened by the revelation that the West is only supporting him to stop Maduro from receiving millions of dollars’ worth in foreign assets – as long as Guaidó is president, Britain does not have to release the Venezuelan gold sitting in London’s banks.
The November elections saw the lowest voter turnout in history. Despite their partly positive report, EU observers were labelled “spies” by Maduro and quickly kicked out of the country. While the elections were innately flawed, they indicate the peoples' disappointment in the opposition– what’s worse is that Unidad knew they were not ready, but caved into EU pressure not to boycott the polls. But why would the EU force an unprepared opposition to take part in rigged elections?
All answers lie in Mexico. On-and-off negotiations between the regime and opposition have been hosted in Mexico with reports of breakthroughs followed by periods of disruption – a month before the mega-elections, Maduro called the arrest of his ally Alex Saab on money laundering charges a “kidnap” by the US and pulled out of the negotiations. To bring them back to the table, the EU pressured the opposition to take part in what they could then call partly fair elections, potentially building consensus with the Caracas regime. This poor EU strategy tells us that Western powers have realised that, now that Guaidó has lost the National Assembly and is tainted by allegations of a US-backed coup attempt, their position is unsustainable.
Mexico tells us that no matter what Venezuelans argue about or even agree on, the crisis in their country is no longer theirs to resolve. It is clear that the US and EU must sit down with China and Russia (among others) if there is to be any solution, though, as Guaidó’s critics close in, Maduro’s PSUV celebrate their win, and the people continue to struggle to survive, the future of Venezuela does not appear to be that bright.