Updated 1 year, 4 months ago

The world is watching Caracas

On December 6, Latin American democracy will face a crucial turning point: parliamentary elections in Venezuela. For the first time in over fifteen years, the country’s ruling United Socialist Party (PSVU), which has dominated the legislature since 1998, looks set to lose a major national election despite its control of a system rigged steeply in its favor. Runaway inflation, severe commodity shortages, and high levels of crime have sparked massive street protests and battered President Maduro’s approval rating, now below 25 percent. He faces a crisis of confidence that his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, never experienced. The PSVU’s challenges are largely self-made, the result of years of economic mismanagement and political repression. It is high time the party faced the electorate directly on an even playing field.

The problem is to ensure that the playing field is even — the PSVU won’t go down without a fight. We know the party has engaged in electoral manipulation in the past, and there are indications it has already begun to do so again. It didn’t even bother to set a date for the elections until its hand was forced by the hunger strike of a popular (and jailed) opposition figure, Leopoldo López. Now that the elections are indeed happening, the chance they represent to reverse the country’s democratic backsliding must not be missed. For that reason, it is essential that the U.S. and other regional powers do everything possible to ensure they are held as fairly as possible.

Unfortunately, there is a trend in Latin America of turning a blind eye to anti-democratic practices. The region’s leaders have consistently failed to defend democracy, preferring instead to prioritize diplomatic convenience and intra-regional “solidarity.” The United States, too, has had more than a few moments of defending friendly but undemocratic regimes. Today, another failure to act forcefully in defense of democracy would be a huge missed opportunity to set Venezuela on a positive trajectory and might encourage other Latin American countries with dubious commitments to free elections, such as Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba, to ignore needed reforms. That’s why the dynamics of this election — and the PSVU’s dismal record in adhering to democratic standards — deserves close scrutiny.

The PSVU has faced close elections before, but it has never been this unpopular. Coming out with a victory this time will require manipulation on an unprecedented level. We know the party is capable of it. In the past, Hugo Chavez aggressively manipulated the pre-election environment by tightly controlling media coverage and slandering the opposition as violent extremists.

Today, President Maduro and the PSVU have already begun to replicate these tactics. The government has barred popular opposition politicians from running in hopes of forcing the often-fractious opposition party, the MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable), to reengage in tricky exercise of re-selecting candidates only months before an election. In an effort to divert attention from rampant inflation and a contracting economy, President Maduro has purposefully re-inflamed tensions with neighboring Colombia. As the elections near, the opposition can expect a reprisal of more of Chavez’s favorite tactics: wildly unequal press coverage, the use of state resources for campaigning, and state-mandated fire sales on luxury goods. Given the scale of the challenges now facing the PVSU, President Maduro may resort to even more heavy-handed tactics, including violence.

It’s precisely due to the prospect of massive electoral fraud that the entire hemisphere must become actively involved to ensure a free and fair election. U.S. policymakers must work with regional allies to pressure President Maduro and the “independent” National Electoral Council to respect the integrity of Venezuela’s elections and uphold common standards of fairness. Because of the PSVU’s anti-American platform, public pronouncements by the U.S. will likely be used as a political tool. Given that President Maduro has already rejected electoral observation and that the U.S. lacks a USAID mission in Venezuela (the primary vehicle through which the U.S. government funds observation missions), the U.S. must instead rely on countries like Brazil, Chile, and Mexico to stand up and safeguard democracy within the Western Hemisphere.

And the region’s powers will have to take on this challenge themselves. They cannot rely on regional bodies, such as the Organization of American States (OAS) or the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), to do so. Such bodies have frequently demonstrated an unwillingness to protect and stand by opposition groups, citing the principle of non-intervention as justification for doing nothing. Further disqualifying both bodies, UNASUR was formed in part by Chavez with an explicit mandate to refrain from “monitoring” elections, and the OAS faces the persistent perception that it is little more than a tool of U.S. imperialism, an accusation levied by Hugo Chavez and President Maduro in the past. It will be up to individual countries to publicly demand, and privately insist, that President Maduro allow a reputable election observation mission to monitor the election. If he does not, these countries must quickly and loudly and respond to reports and allegations of fraud, and if necessary, threaten or levy sanctions.

Countries that enjoy strong relationships with the government in Caracas (in particular, Brazil) must take the lead — and not with rhetoric, but with concrete steps. Beyond insisting on a meaningful electoral observation mission, they should also insist that President Maduro de-escalate his confrontation with Colombia, allow opposition figures to stand for election, and forswear any last-minute pre-electoral machinations. Given the violence that recently broke out in protests between opposition supporters and police, a fair and transparent electoral process takes on additional importance. If Latin America’s leading powers choose to stay silent, the PSVU could freely orchestrate the most blatant example of electoral fraud the region has witnessed in twenty years. Other Latin American politicians with authoritarian ambitions will take note.

Foreing Policy |BY JAMES PAGANO