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Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

No Good Options Ahead

Taking part in the regional elections might be the only way forward, but it’s still a terrible plan and politicians should be upfront about it

Venezuela is heading to a controversial regional election on November 21st. To some, including myself, the process seemed inconsequential at first. After all, I already lived the never-ending debate between pro and anti elections sides back in 2017, 2018, and 2020. I also remember how, back in 2017, the government forced the few opposition governors who got elected to swear their oath of office before a tailor-made unconstitutional body, just to transfer most of their functions to handpicked rivals.

So I decided to ignore them this time, to not read too much about them, to not keep a close eye on what candidates and their detractors said on social media. But it became increasingly clear that these elections were in fact different. They were different because they mark an all-time low in 21st-century Venezuelan politics, and in the country’s expectations of change.

Everyone knows there are currently no conditions in Venezuela for a free and fair electoral process. This is clear for both abstentionists and sectors eager to participate in the election. Despite superficial changes in the structure of the National Electoral Council (CNE), the institution has so far failed to increase trust in the processes it organizes.

This lack of conditions is the origin of a somewhat generalized apathy towards voting, and a widespread lack of trust towards those who supervise it and make it count.

This lack of trust was apparently shared by the European Union’s exploratory mission that visited the country in July and refrained from recommending sending an official electoral observation mission (EOM) to the country to monitor the election, according to its recently leaked report.

The lack of trust is well-justified. Venezuelans didn’t wake up one day not wanting to vote. They didn’t decide so after reading some article posted on the Financial Times, or because Juan Guaidó has so far refrained from explicitly endorsing the opposition candidates. No, Venezuelan democracy was steadily and systematically eroded in the last two decades, and plainly destroyed in the last six years. Opposition voters remember how they won the 2015 parliamentary election, just to see the National Assembly bypassed by courts controlled by Maduro. They remember how the CNE baselessly killed the recall referendum on Maduro back in 2016, or how opposition governors were stripped of their victories in Zulia, or denounced fraud in Bolívar, back in 2017. 

People are well aware that the Venezuelan government can do pretty much whatever it wants and get away with it.

Yet, a lot of people still want to vote. Many are tired of the political inertia in which the opposition has been trapped for the last two years, and see the election as a better alternative to doing nothing at all. Some opposition politicians also need people to vote, as elections are key for their political survival. What would be the point of getting into politics after all, if you won’t participate in elections

Furthermore, there’s yet another elephant in the room: the elections are going to happen no matter what. Whether the opposition participates or not, whether the European Union accompanies the process or not, the regional elections are a reality. Even more now that the regime abandoned the Mexico talks, following the extradition of Alex Saab from Cape Verde to the U.S.

In this context, participating might be the only option. After two years of engaging the government in an attrition war, the Venezuelan opposition is clearly losing, and the coalition’s eternal fractures have deepened for the whole world to see.

There seems to be no alternative to voting, but even then, it’s false that participating in the election will take Venezuela closer to a democratic resolution to our crisis. The November elections aren’t a “fiesta electoral” nor a chance to rebuild the electoral system, they are simply the only route left for the opposition’s political survival.

Participating in the election won’t force the government to grant more guarantees in further processes. Some sectors of the opposition have made it abundantly clear that they’ll take part in elections regardless of how bad the conditions are. They are trying to sell the idea that voting for mostly unknown, and occasionally plainly mediocre candidates, who will be stripped of any real power in the event of winning is somehow bringing Venezuela closer to democracy. To make things worse, they are doing so through one of the most disastrous electoral campaigns in the country’s recent history. 

In fact, the Maduro regime doesn’t have any real incentive to grant conditions, as it seems now more stable than ever before. The so-called Pax Bodegónica in which the country has entered as a result of the elimination of price controls, and the adoption of the dollar as the de facto currency now allows a small, accommodated fraction of the population to live a relatively normal life, with access to prohibitively expensive private healthcare and basic services. Other sectors can at least cover their most basic needs more easily. The vast majority of the country, however, can’t cope with the ever-present hyperinflation and the absolute lack of a social safety net. But with a strong state surveillance apparatus, and the Armed Forces committed to keeping Maduro in power, the possibility of this social discomfort materializing into a credible threat for the government remains low.

A free and democratic Venezuela is good for most of the international community of course, but it’s not absolutely necessary. The world can survive with a Maduro-controlled Venezuela, as long as it’s politically stable.

And a massively impoverished country can still be stable. In fact, the opportunity to take advantage of this new twisted chavista economic laissez-faire might eventually become more attractive to many countries, when compared to the current status quo in which Maduro lacks legitimacy, but Juan Guaidó lacks real power to govern. 

Uncertainty around who is the legitimate leader of Venezuela makes it difficult for any country to invest without risking international repercussions. After two years of this dynamic, economic interests in Europe and elsewhere might start to pressure their leaders to normalize relationships with a stable chavista regime, not wanting to miss the chance of taking a bite at the new opportunities that an “open” Venezuela might offer. Besides, restoring some links with the Maduro regime could help manage the regional effects of the massive Venezuelan migration.

Even if this isn’t the case, the chavista regime has proved that it can live with sanctions, and the opposition’s allies seem unlikely to go much further than that when it comes to putting pressure on Maduro.

There are, in summary,  no domestic actors with enough strength to force the government to comply with any agreement, nor foreign ones seriously committed to doing it.

This is the context in which the Venezuelan opposition decides to take part in regional elections, not because it’s a good idea, but because it’s the only idea. 

Still, not a single politician seems to be ready to publicly acknowledge this.

For most voices asking people to vote, this is still a matter of “recovering spaces” or “paving the ground for a recall referendum.” As long as the government can’t be forced to grant really meaningful concessions, the kind of concessions that would jeopardize its grip on power, this is nothing but a fantasy.

So why not be upfront about it? Why not tell people that this a terrible plan, that it’s extremely unlikely that it will lead to any important change, that chavismo has pretty much won already, but that there aren’t really many more options left?

Don’t tell people that voting for a guy whose existence they learned about a month ago will bring Venezuela closer to democracy. Don’t lie. 

I would personally appreciate the honesty. I’m sure many more would too.

Juan Carlos Gabaldón

Medical doctor from Merida, currently studying Medical Parasitology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine