Responding to Venezuela’s Election

David Smilde

Yesterday’s Washington Post editorial makes a number of valid points about Venezuela’s “dirty” legislative election. Yet it also contains a number of inaccuracies that are important to point out, since they could lead to unconstructive responses by the US and others.

The Maduro government’s abuse of state institutions, resources and employees to curb its probable electoral losses is indeed grotesque, and started months ago with the disqualification of a number of opposition candidates. And this goes a long way towards explaining why Venezuela has steadfastly refused robust international observation.

But while it is true that 52% of voters concentrated in pro-opposition (i.e. urban) areas will elect just 39% of the deputies, as the Post suggests, this has nothing to do with gerrymandering. Rather it is the result of a rural-bias written into the constitution very similar to what we have in the United States.

The US Senate has severe malapportionment—senators from Vermont represent a little over 625,000 citizens, while senators from New York represent 19 million. That each state gets two senators no matter what their size is hardwired and unchanging. In contrast the number of representatives each state sends to the US House of Representatives changes with each census.

In 1999 Venezuela moved to a unicameral congress and as a result built in to the system: hard-wired (almost) equal state representation (51 proportional list candidates divided among 21 states (the 3 biggest state get 3 list deputies, all others 2)), indigenous representation (3 deputies), and population-sensitive representation (113 nominal deputies).

All serious observers need to expect this system will come into play on December 6, and that it will favor Chavismo in the same way that the rural bias of the US Senate affects issues from gun control to immigration policy. However, this in itself does not indicate any wrong doing. The Venezuelan opposition needs to learn how to engage rural Venezuela in the same way that the US Democratic Party needs to figure out how to engage rural United States.

Venezuela’s districts have indeed been gerrymandered. But analyses of the 2010 legislative elections–in which Chavismo won a majority of the Assembly seats with a minority of the vote–pointed to this malapportionment, not gerrymandering. Indeed, gerrymandering tends to backfire when it gets past a certain threshold and that could well be the case this time around.

The Post also argues that the US and Venezuela’s neighbors have silently tolerated the destruction of Venezuelan democracy. This is simply inaccurate. The list of regional leaders that sparred with Chávez is long, from Mexico’s Vicente Fox, to Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, to Panama’s Ricardo Martinelli. And the Maduro government’s biggest critics are former Latin American presidents such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Ricardo Lagos and Ernesto Zedillo.

The point is that Latin America is a modern and diverse context with a full range of political perspectives. If Latin American leaders’ approaches to Venezuela seem too soft and too slow to Washington insiders, they should simply compare them to Washington’s nuanced engagement of European allies and pragmatic positions regarding countries like Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The US has hardly been passive either. Successive administrations have engaged in almost continuous tit-for-tat with Venezuela over the past decade and a half. In fact press reports last week revealed that the National Security Agency identified Venezuela’s state oil company as the institution that “funds and runs the revolution” and actively spied on it–hardly the actions of a passive government.

The editorial ends with a call to “apply pressure” to Venezuela. But the use of pneumatic metaphors in foreign policy is all too simple. As the Venezuela sanctions debacle last March showed, poorly conceived policy tends to exacerbate the problems it aims to address.

The Post is right, however, in arguing that the region needs to prepare for the possibility of a political crisis in Venezuela over the coming weeks and months. But in doing so, the emphasis should be on informed, multilateral engagement in cooperation with regional stakeholders.