Smart Diplomacy
Will Venezuela’s Elections Be Fair?

Since the Maduro regime came to power in 2013 following the death of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has seen its economy spiral downwards, and the political, social, and diplomatic climate grow increasingly tense. Now, with the country by some accounts teetering on the verge of collapse, the regime appears to have given in to one of the opposition’s demands. The Washington Post:

Venezuela will hold parliamentary elections on Dec. 6, officials in Caracas said Monday, setting a date for a contest that will offer the country’s long-suffering opposition a chance to make its most substantial gains in more than a decade.

With President Nicolás Maduro weakened by sagging oil prices, a financial crisis and rampant crime, his opponents have feared the government would attempt to cancel or postpone the vote to spare itself an embarrassing defeat.

Maduro, the handpicked successor to the late Hugo Chávez, is not up for reelection until 2019. But if the opposition takes control of parliament, it would raise the chances of a recall referendum against him next year. In the latest public opinion surveys, Maduro’s approval rating is around 25 percent.

The announcement comes after the intervention of State Department counselor Thomas Shannon, a former assistant secretary for Latin America and former Ambassador to Brazil, who met with the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello—a man who appears to be the focus of a U.S. criminal investigation for drug trafficking. As Jackson Diehl noted in an excellent dispatch earlier this week, the intervention was prompted by a month-long hunger strike of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López. With the elections announced and two political prisoners released, López ended his protest. So, score one for smart diplomacy?

Perhaps, though it’s still too soon to celebrate. Ambassador Shannon was also asking for international election observers in Venezuela come December, but no word on that from Caracas quite yet. And as Diehl noted, there are plenty of reasons for the thugs to not play it straight:

Maduro and Cabello want the lifting of U.S. sanctions imposed on Venezuelan officials for involvement in human rights abuses as well as drug trafficking. But the administration’s answer is that the visa denials and asset freezes were mandated by congressional legislation and won’t be revoked without Capitol Hill’s support. The only way to win that, Maduro and Cabello were told, was to release the political prisoners and agree to an election with international monitoring.

The U.S. criminal investigation of Cabello, too, is unstoppable — and the prospect of being ousted from his post at the National Assembly while he is subject to indictment gives him powerful reason to resist a fair election. Maduro and Cabello are known to lead different factions within an increasingly splintered regime, but it’s not evident that either is willing or able to meet Washington’s terms.

So that’s the thing to watch for next: international election monitors would be a big deal and could even signal a split in the regime. Until then, however, we’re not holding our collective breaths for huge official gains by the opposition.

Of course, December is reasonably far away, and six months is plenty of time for the situation to deteriorate even further in Venezuela. If things get bad enough, an egregiously rigged election might light a fire that the Chavistas could have trouble containing.

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