If he is different from Trump, Biden must change track on Venezuela

After Venezuela’s elections, constructive engagement should follow, writes Tim Young.

Venezuela has successfully held elections for its National Assembly, despite the extreme difficulties imposed on it by the US’s economic blockade of the country and the coronavirus pandemic. On 6 December Venezuelans voted for 277 legislators from more than 14,400 candidates drawn from 107 national and regional political organisations.

Contrary to baseless claims made by the Trump administration, the Boris Johnson UK government and the European Union, the entire electoral process, from the agreement of the electoral schedule on 1st July to the election day itself, was conducted with transparency and integrity.

Overseen by a reconstituted National Electoral Council (CNE), with representatives from the opposition parties which had engaged in dialogue with President Maduro and the Venezuelan government, the process again built in 16 audits at key stages throughout. These audits took place with the participation of representatives of both opposition parties and those supporting the government and were accessible via a live streaming channel on the CNE’s website.

Over 200 international observers from 17 countries were present at the election, including experts from organisations such as the Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America (CEELA), now led by a former minister in Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe’s cabinet, as well as jurists, religious leaders and former political leaders of standing such as two-time Prime Minister of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

As has happened in other elections in Venezuela in different periods, various sections of extreme right-wing opposition forces, urged on by self-declared ‘interim president’ Juan Guaidó, boycotted the elections. This contributed, along with Covid-19 considerations, to a low 30.5% of the electoral roll participating, well below the 74% in the 2015 Assembly elections. However, turnout in Assembly elections has fluctuated considerably, from 25% in 2005 when the entire opposition boycotted the elections, to 66% in 2010.

In the new National Assembly, 253 seats have been won by the government-supporting coalition, known as the Great Patriotic Pole, while the remaining 24 seats were won by the opposition Democratic Action Party (11 seats), Progressive Advance party (3), The Change (3), Venezuela First (2), one each for the Social Christian Party and the Communist Party of Venezuela and three indigenous representatives.

What is significant about the new Assembly is that not only the government-supporting members but also its opposition members favour self-determination and national sovereignty. This leaves the extreme right-wing forces outside the Assembly wedded to support for US sanctions and US-backed ‘regime change’.

As such, it opens up an additional space for dialogue between the government and the opposition, a process that President Maduro has advocated and implemented consistently. Inevitably there are and will be differences of opinion between the government and National Assembly opposition members, but this represents a major step forward for Venezuela – and a serious challenge to the United States and its allies.

What happens in the future will depend in part on the US and its key allies, the UK and the EU, and whether they will continue to promote their common policy of sanctions, non-recognition of the elections and recognition of Guaidό as ‘interim president’ – despite his corrupt activities, involvement in serial coup attempts, repeated calls to the military to oust Maduro and complete lack of any legal or constitutional legitimacy.

Already, former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles is reported as declaring that the current US strategy of backing Guaidό is “finished”, saying: “The new [Biden] administration has to understand that this plan has run its course and it cannot keep the status quo: the [Guaidό] ‘interim presidency’.”  

From a European perspective, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, former Prime Minister of Spain and Observer for the election, has already asked the EU “to distance itself from Trump’s policy towards Venezuela”.

He said: “I would like the EU to reflect after these elections to assess what the policy of sanctions, especially President Trump’s policy, or the policy of non-recognition of the elections has brought about. Not to turn away is to bet on a radical change in what the sanctions and their economic consequences have meant for the people of Venezuela.”

He continued: “I hope that not recognising the elections or the possible non-recognition of the consequences do not mean disengaging from Venezuela, disengaging from the serious problems Venezuela faces.”

Referring to his preference for a diplomatic way forward, he is also reported as saying: “Neither sanctions nor blockades are the answer. There is no better path than democracy. There will be no better tool for solving problems than dialogue and coexistence.”

VSC continues to support Venezuela’s right to national sovereignty and urges the US and UK governments, and the EU, to recognise the elections, lift all sanctions and engage constructively with the Venezuelan government.