Tools for Change: How Far Will Elections Take Us Right Now?

As the crisis deepens and the possibility of an election to approve a new Constitution hovers over our heads, the old debate of voting or not in an election without fair conditions resurfaces stronger than ever before. What has changed?

Photo: Sputnik News retrieved.

It doesn’t matter how simple or complex a task is, you’ll always need the right tool. A neurosurgeon can’t open a skull with a scalpel, and you can’t hammer a nail with a screwdriver. It’s not different when trying to remove a government from power. In most countries, an election is the only tool it takes. But Venezuela is not a normal country.

A once-successful democracy was utterly hijacked by an authoritarian project that, in 20 years, took the country two centuries into the past, right in front of the whole world’s eyes. Few can understand how terrible it is, to live in a place where your two salaries won’t let you have pizza from time to time, much less “luxuries” like a car, a TV or even clothes. A place where every weekend there’s a farewell party for a different friend, where you see malnourished children and their grandparents fainting after weeks without proper food, and where the man responsible for all the chaos addresses the nation daily to remind us how lucky we are to have him running the show.

The Venezuelan crisis is the worst the Western world has seen in quite a long time, and its sole responsibles are Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro and the ruling clique keeping the latter in power. As long as they stay there, not a single step will be taken to rebuild this heavily damaged country, and make no mistake: they’ll do all they can to keep it that way.

That’s why I can’t understand how some people still try to sell voting, in the current conditions, like the only miraculous tool to fix this mess.

I can’t understand how some people still try to sell voting, in the current conditions, like the only miraculous tool to fix this mess.

Don’t get me wrong; until last year, I had voted in every single election the National Electoral Council (CNE) called. I believe the right to vote is extremely important and deciding whether to execute it or not is a very personal decision that should be always respected. I just really can’t stand how the same people that saw Maduro bypass the democratically elected National Assembly in 2015, the same ones who heard the president of Smartmatic accuse the CNE of inventing over a million votes out of thin air for the National Constituent Assembly, the same ones who saw Maduro handpick a loser candidate to fight against on his reelection last May, are the ones saying that we all must go and vote, waiting for the government to steal the election again, like this is some sort of winning strategy.

They talk like we hadn’t done all we, civilians, could do, ignoring all we’ve learned during the last 20 years. Arguing that a massive participation is all we need, comparing us to historically and politically different countries like Chile or Poland, they tell us that abstentionists are the reason why MUD/Frente Amplio’s popularity fell in the latest opinion polls, avoiding comments about those organizations’ incapacity to stop Maduro’s pervasive social control scheme. They’re also continuously clumsy at PR, which hides the few statements that escape the State’s censorship.

But furthermore, they seem oblivious of how the scenario of Maduro losing an election under current conditions is extremely unlikely. Paradoxically, as the crisis worsens, the government grows stronger and the oppositions weakens. Contrary to what many AD philosophers may think, this happens not because some anonymous guy rants against Henry Ramos Allup on Twitter: as people grow poorer, they’re more dependant from the government, and the risk of rebelling (or voting) against Maduro gets higher, a vicious circle that the opposition hasn’t been able to break. Many hate Maduro, but they fear that if the opposition wins, it won’t have the strength to make any changes. To them, the risk of voting against the government and then lose the little benefits they need to survive is just too high. Migration is a safer bet, leaving the opposition with less votes every day, making a highly unpopular government more likely to actually win future elections.

Paradoxically, as the crisis worsens, the government grows stronger and the oppositions weakens.

There’s also the elephant in the room: the government doesn’t even need votes to “win.” The long-suspected fact was evidenced last year, first with Smartmatic’s speech (Ramos Allup, by the way, called that very same day for people to massively vote regardless), and after Andrés Velásquez “lost” the regional election of Bolívar, even though he got more votes than his adversary. But in case that wasn’t enough, chavismo can always accept defeat and then impose its will, like what happened after the opposition victories of 2007, 2015 and with Juan Pablo Guanipa a year ago, stripped of his recently-gained post as elected governor of Zulia for refusing to “bend the knee” before the National Constituent Assembly. Even those opposition governors who actually did it, saw many of their capacities transferred to parallel governments named by Maduro.

I’d love living in a place where a good candidate, doing a good campaign, could end this nightmare, but Maduro will never leave power through an election, unless he’s forced to.

Massive public outrage could pressure the government to make some concessions. The whole country is in tense calm since last year’s demonstrations, even though everything is falling apart at a vertiginous pace. The government has made efforts to dissuade nation-wide, coordinated protests, it uses subsidies as a bargain chip and, when that fails, it can always count on its miserable, but still efficient repressive apparatus. So far they’ve been successful, but sometimes it feels like all it takes is a little push for people to rebel. Yesterday, the horrible death of PJ councilman, Fernando Albán, while under SEBIN’s custody, shocked the country. Official conflicting sources quickly ruled it as a suicide, but opposition parties reacted with long-forgotten contundence, claiming Albán was killed by security forces and calling for public manifestations condemning the apparent crime.

Could this be the push needed to ignite a new series of protests? Would those protests be enough to pressure Maduro?

There’s also the elephant in the room: the government doesn’t even need votes to “win.”

A far less shocking event sparked the 2017 cycle, but the government survived, suppressing dissent with deadly violence and making no concessions at all. Considering how scared and unmotivated people are today, it’s unlikely that domestic pressure alone would ever be enough.

On the international scenario, the United States’ targeted sanctions against chavismo’s heavyweights add pressure, but so far have been insufficient. A greater involvement from both the U.S. and its regional allies is critical to achieve regime change. Such involvement, whatever shape it takes, may be driven by the massive flow of refugees flooding Latin America (and the pressure they generate from electors in receiving countries) or from the growing tensions between Colombia and Venezuela along their 2,000 km-long border.

To be honest, I don’t know what’s the right tool for this job, or if it even exists. But I’m sure that, under the current conditions, believing an election will bring democracy back to Venezuela is a pipe dream as delusional as thinking salvation will come from a U.S. Navy carrier off La Guaira shore.

So please don’t sell us those screwdrivers like they were hammers.