Notes from ‘Neither Free Nor Fair: What to do about Venezuela’s Presidential Elections?’

On February 21st, the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center hosted an event highlighting the uncertainty in Venezuela as the country prepares for presidential elections slated for April 22.  What follows is a collection of notes on the speakers’ remarks, gathered by WOLA Venezuela intern Melissa Medina Márquez. A video of the event is available here.

Introduction

The event’s introduction featured a conversation between Jason  Marczak, Director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, and Colombia’s Ambassador to the United States Camilo Reyes. In his remarks, Reyes described the scope of Venezuela’s exodus as a regional crisis, noting the strain it is planning on Colombian institutions at the border. The event also featured special remarks by former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga, who called on the international community to take more drastic measures to place pressure on Venezuela’s government.

Panel

Moderator: Tracy Wilkinson, LA Times

Gerardo de Icaza, Acting Secretary for Strengthening Democracy, OAS

Luis Lander, Director, Observatorio Electoral Venezolano

Eugenio Martínez, Journalist, Diario Las Américas

Jennifer McCoy, Professor of Political Science, Georgia State University

 

When asked about the measures that could be taken to make the April 22nd electoral process a free and fair one, Gerardo de Icaza observed that there are several issues that will impede this. First, the amount of time left until April 22nd is not enough, as just a couple of years ago the president of the CNE stated that it is impossible to organize an election in less than 300 days. Second, several political prisoners will not participate in the electoral process. Third, Venezuelans abroad only had a short amount of time to register, so voting will be limited. And finally, strong opposition leaders will not be able to be candidates, the government is choosing against whom they want to run.

Jennifer McCoy was asked about the possible organizations suited to participate as observers and guaranty a good electoral process. She pointed out that people have been predicting the fall of this government for a long time, but its capacity to morph and survive in face of challenges should not be underestimated. Moreover, the government has been willing to go as far as necessary and bring the country down into misery, which is why the international community’s reaction is extremely important.

Ms. McCoy encourages coordinated multilevel action that encompasses both incentives and punitive measures to react to the multiple types of responses from inside the country. For example, she sees an opportunity for leverage in the UN observer mission that the CNE has invited, they could say that they will accept the invitation only if certain conditions to guarantee a fair election are taken into account.

But she also expects a change from within, since regimes change when they face situations like the one Venezuela is going through at the moment. When the changes start taking place, the international community will have to support mechanisms of transitional justice. However, she does not see the military as an ally who the international community can depend on, because militaries that are financially dependent of their governments do not act against it.

Luis Lander gave an insight into how electoral processes have evolved through the time that he has been working on the issue. First he emphasized that electoral observation missions require time to engage in their work democratically. If countries invite international observers to report on their elections, they normally have to do this several months in advance to guarantee high-quality observation work – the UN and the OAS may be interested in following the election, but even with the best intentions and a huge amount of resources they will not achieve the best quality standards  in 60 days. He mentioned the observation mission the EU carried out on the 2006 elections as an example of a good observation mission. In the early 2000’s, the government used to invite civil society organizations to carry out observations, but in the last years, the have denied the requests of many organizations with the argument that there is not enough time to plan their observation missions.

Mr. Lander believes that 2015 was the inflection point. That is when the quality of electoral processes in Venezuela started diminishing. Before that, elections used to take place under conditions that made them legitimate, the electoral software worked properly and the results could not be modified after they entered the system. Until 2015, when the opposition won, as a consequence, electoral fraud was carried out in the elections last year, in Bolívar. This could be recognized because the software still worked properly and served as proof that the results had been altered.

Eugenio Martinez stated that in 2010 the regime could be categorized as competitive authoritarianism, and ever since it has been getting more authoritarian and less competitive. 2015 was the moment of change because the government realized they would not be able to win without a manipulation of the vote. Additionally, their social welfare mechanisms play a role in social control and can act as tools to coerce the people to vote a certain way. When citizens believe that the vote is not a secret, they will not risk voting the person who gives them a basket of food out of office.

On the role of the military, Mr. Martínez observed that military personnel have control and access to many state enterprises and ministerial offices. They also played a crucial role in facilitating the 2015 fraud.

On the role of the opposition, he said out that a renovation of power on all levels, through a parliamentarian election paired with a presidential election, is a great incentive for many parties. The opposition went to the Dominican Republic with the objective of getting electoral guarantees, while the government was seeking a way to guarantee governability, but they both had very different paths in mind, that is why they failed.

When asked about his position on sanctions, Luis Lander expressed his concern about them, because sanctions could end up worsening the situation for the communities they are supposed to help. He highlights that targeted sanctions are a better tool than oil sanctions, which would only deepen the economic crisis.

On the same topic, Jennifer McCoy pointed out that instead of issuing new sanctions, countries should get other countries to issue sanctions against the same people as they already have. A combination of isolation and engagement is useful, even though isolation is risky for example if countries start closing their embassies in Venezuela, because they are there to help the people in the country and the government solve arising problems.

To finish, Eugenio Martínez was asked about his remarks on how the government has tried to manipulate the sanctions regime. He mentioned that most polls show that Venezuelans agree with individual sanctions on government officials, but they were against countrywide sanctions. In Venezuela a study on living conditions showed that 85% of Venezuelans live in poverty, 63% live in extreme poverty, so nationwide sanctions that would reduce the inflow of dollars to the country will make the job more difficult for the government, but this will also impact common Venezuelans. The government has been really smart to frame targeted sanctions as nationwide sanctions to the people, they have even said that the lack of medicines is a consequence of them Additionally Maduro has turned to Cryptocurrencies as a way to get around sanctions, so we will have to keep an eye on how the Petro (which is the same value as a barrel of oil) fluctuates.