Can the Barbados Agreement Restore Electoral Conditions in Venezuela?

Eugenio Martinez, one of the more respected Venezuelan election experts, estimates how much the electorate, in Venezuela and abroad, must expect from now to April 2024

“I think there has been an excessively electoral analysis of the agreement” in Barbados, says journalist Eugenio Martínez, one of the most respected voices in Venezuela about electoral matters. “The agreement is more focused on reinserting Venezuela into the Western energy market.” However, he says, this reintegration is associated with conditions and guarantees for the 2024 presidential elections: “The loss of conditions and guarantees of the elections in Venezuela was a gradual process and recovering those conditions and guarantees will also be gradual. No agreement is going to make the 2024 election recover everything that was lost in the last decade.”

The journalist believes that if what was agreed is fulfilled by the April 2024 deadline, the 2024 elections could be “reasonably competitive” for the opposition. “Of course,” he adds, “The devil is in the details.”

The agreement talks about creating a joint mechanism to measure whether the agreed commitments are being met. What can we expect from this mechanism?

To date, what we know is that there will be periodic evaluation meetings. The first one will probably be in November in Paris. This is not confirmed yet, and in any case this step-by-step follow-up of the agreement can actually be checked everyday in Venezuela. The special electoral registry operation that the National Electoral Council (CNE) will do until November 17 is a step forward; CNE is complying with the words in the agreement. That’s true. But this operation does not correct the deficiencies supposed to be fixed with what the agreement contains, because so far CNE is inscribing voters on a registry quite biased and opaque in terms of the location of the registering points. Given that improving the electoral registry is one of the priorities for 2024, the follow-up must be constant, because of the complexity of many laborious processes that cannot be finished in a periodical meeting. If the follow-up mechanism is limited to periodical meetings, it will be very easy for the government to say then that is meeting the goals agreed. A more detailed review of the day-to-day execution of the project, from an electoral point of view, will make more difficult to comply with what was agreed.

The agreement also mentions including people abroad. Can we expect the diaspora to vote in 2024?

No. That’s the problem with the agreement. Its statement about the votes from the diaspora needs development, step by step. For many Venezuelans abroad there is a first limitation: the organic law of electoral processes and a memo the CNE sent in 2012, stating that a voter abroad must prove permanent legal residence in that country he or she is living in. Second, Venezuela only has 120 consular and diplomatic missions in the world. There is no way they could serve 3 million potential voters who want to register on consulates and CNE registries before April 2024. So you need to redefine the registration process abroad.

Same with international observation. The European Union can be invited, as well as the United Nations panel of experts, but for them to come they must sign a memorandum of understanding, given that the law does not allow a proper observation mission. Without that MoU setting guidelines, the chances of the Carter Center, the UN panel or the EU coming are very small.

This means it is not enough to just make the formal invitation. A lot of legal work must be done to allow them to come, as was done in 2021 [regional elections] with the European Union.

Given that improving the electoral registry is one of the priorities for 2024, the follow-up must be constant, because of the complexity of many laborious processes that cannot be finished in a periodical meeting.

Another agreed issue is that the electoral system be audited. What can we expect with audits in this case?

The audit must be at least like the one carried out in 2021, a general review prior to the audits promoted by then CNE rector Roberto Picón. An audit is one thing and a review is another; we need to focus more on audits. It is not enough for the CNE to say that 16 audits will be carried out on the automated voting system if there is no concrete development of the system review plan afterwards.

The opposition’s electoral technicians should already be working on the schedule to review the automated voting system in detail. Unlike what happened in 2017 with the voting for the Constituent Assembly, in this case there is no technology provider independent of the CNE that can report irregularities in the readings of the totalization bulletins. In 2017, Smartmatic reported that [former CNE president] Tibisay Lucena was reading or announcing results that were different from those that their system had totaled. It is difficult for me to assume the same about Ex-clé, the biometrics company that would perform the automatized election in 2024, unofficially linked with rector Carlos Quintero. I have no confidence that, if [current CNE president] Elvis Amoroso is going to read a bulletin of results different from the one totaled by the system, Ex-clé is going to denounce him as Smartmatic did in 2017. That is why the presence of the electoral technicians and the audits are more important than ever. And that is an issue that cannot be resolved simply with informal or superficial reviews of the voting system. It must be something much more complex.

The idea that a large part of the population has is that electoral fraud consists of Tibisay Lucena inflating numbers on her computer due to Smartmatic reporting different numbers. How did the fraud reported by Smartmatic work? What would be different this time for that not to happen?

There is widespread trauma with the automated voting system because the Venezuelan political class and the media generally blamed the automated voting system for the defeats. The Venezuelan government loves that the debate focuses on the automatization system because that system –within the Venezuelan electoral cycle– is basically the only thing that works well, so it will come out well. In 2017, it was an issue with the turnout data in the election of the National Constituent Assembly. The system totaled 6 million participants and the president of the CNE read a different bulletin with a projection of turnout results that the CNE was making if centers had not been closed, if violence had not occurred in some areas of Caracas, etc. Smartmatic reported that this was not what the system had totaled.

They practically announced an electoral victory based on a hypothetical.

Only the government participated in the Constituent Assembly. So it wasn’t that they gave the victory to one party to take it away from another. They simply gave a higher participation figure for a matter of political strategy.

Could something similar happen in 2024?

Well, 2024 is something else. It won’t matter so much how many people are going to vote, but the results of those who are going to vote. Because it is supposed to be an election between Maduro and other contenders. There is a risk, especially if Amoroso keeps ruling CNE, that can only be reduced if it is previously audited, as must be done, the automated voting system, and the opposition is able to have witnesses at all the tables that draw up the tally sheets and can compare the results in real time. These factors are juxtaposed to those that the CNE is announcing. The advantage of the automated voting system in Venezuela is that it generates a paper trace that can be reconstructed. It is very simple. You are going to do a parallel count with the paper trace to verify what the CNE is saying. Except in Bolívar state during the 2017 regional elections, the system has always worked well. And in that case that particularity of the paper trace was what made it possible to demonstrate that the regional CNE –with the complicity of the military– prevented the automated voting system from working and manually changed the results, against opposition candidate Andres Velasquez.

The agreement also contemplates conditions for the press: that the national and international press can cover the electoral process and that the candidates have access to the media. Can we perhaps expect a relaxation of press freedom in the country from this agreement?

Honestly, these words have been signed in all electoral agreements for a decade and in practice, this access is restricted exclusively to the campaign period, which can be two or three weeks. Legally speaking, the access to public information is not ideal. That it is one of the points that will have the least results.

Most opposition parties today do not have ownership of their electoral cards in the ballot. They were handed to pro-government versions of the parties created by the Supreme Court. Can we expect that with this agreement the cards of the parties of the Unitary Platform will be returned?

No, it is not what is planned and really that is not relevant for 2024. The year 2024 is a single constituency. Just having a card to nominate your candidate is more than enough. The problem will be the regional and parliamentary elections. If the presidential election, and this was supposedly agreed upon, is separated from the regional and parliamentary elections –and from the way the agreement was worded it seems that they mean that, but honestly it is a matter of how the wording is interpreted – the issue of the party cards has no impact.

Yesterday the U.S. Department of State said that the government has until the end of November to create a process to lift the bans from running for office for all candidates. What can we expect from this? Is there a possibility that the bans on candidates like María Corina Machado will be lifted?

It is quite simple what is agreed: anyone who is banned by the Comptroller’s Office must complain to the Comptroller’s Office. Given that all political bans in Venezuela are not justified on crimes but respond to political strategies, maintaining or lifting a ban will be the product of a negotiation process. This is not a legal issue. It is a political issue.

Tony Frangie Mawad

Tony (1997) is one of Caracas Chronicles' editors, where he writes since 2016. He graduated in Journalism and Political Science from Boston University in 2021. Since then, he has written at Bloomberg, The Economist, Politico and others.