Last month on 6 December, the multiparty coalition supporting Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro won 69 per cent of ballots cast in elections for the National Assembly. While over 100 parties took part in the contest, the majority of the opposition boycotted the vote – indeed, voter turnout was low, at 31 per cent.
Opposition moderates still accepted the election’s outcome and harshly critiqued those that called for a boycott. Speaking on the opposition network Globovisión, Bernabé Gutiérrez, general secretary for one of Venezuela’s oldest political parties, Acción Democrática, and new member for the National Assembly, said that ‘this opposition, represented in the new parliament, will not continue the ruckus of a parallel National Assembly, although I see and have heard that there are those that will pretend to legislate and direct the country from overseas.’ He added that what was missing from Juan Guaidó’s team was a ‘Minster of Defense’ – a mocking reference to that fact that, despite being recognised by the United States and its allies as the country’s legitimate head of state, Guaidó did not control Venezuela’s armed forces.
The Washington Post described the vote as ‘blatantly rigged’ – as did a similar statement by Mike Pompeo on 7 December. Yet the Post did at least concede that the election might help Maduro, potentially ‘deal[ing] a final blow to the U.S.-backed campaign to force [his] ouster through economic strangulation, a popular uprising or a military coup.’
But the election that took place can hardly be seen in separation from these threats. Indeed, while most opposition parties did publically state that they were not going to participate in the election, those that did had by September come under sanctions from the US Treasury Department. According to Ociel Alí López – a political analyst and professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela – this included five opposition leaders who will now no longer be able to hold ‘accounts or properties in the United States’ and possibly in ‘allied countries’.
The Trump administration’s sanctions against opposition parties that were willing to participate in the election once again highlighted its commitment to overthrowing the administration in Caracas. During his recent Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State for the Joe Biden administration, Anthony Blinken, said that he supports Trump’s policy of endorsing Guaidó, whilst describing Maduro as a ‘brutal dictator’. A Biden official earlier this month said that the new president had no intentions to negotiate with Maduro as ‘the Biden administration will stand with the Venezuelan people and their call for a restoration of democracy through free and fair elections.’
While the abstention of the majority of the opposition parties received highly favourable coverage in most US media, their violence – and their funding from the United States itself – was conveniently overlooked. In a break from this norm, in July 2019 the Los Angeles Times reported that the Trump administration planned to ‘divert more than $40 million in humanitarian aid from Central America to the U.S.-backed opposition in Venezuela’.
According to Timothy Gill, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee, during the period of the Chávez (1999-2013) and Maduro (2013-present) governments:
several U.S. government agencies have furnished opposition political parties and opposition-oriented NGOs with training and financial assistance. This has all primarily flowed from USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (and its associated groups, such as the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute).
Gill adds that:
These groups have worked with political parties on projects such as building websites, working with social media, developing political platforms, and reaching out to youth voters. The IRI, for instance, has continually strategised with opposition political parties and has sought to help the opposition unify against the PSUV. In recent years, the Trump administration has allocated more funding for the Venezuelan opposition and the so-called interim government of Juan Guaidó. It appears that the administration is, for example, paying for embassies abroad and for some of Guaidó’s travel. Elliot Abrams mentioned this in a press conference in February. That, I’m sure, is only the tip of the iceberg.
In Gill’s view, from the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009) until the present, the Venezuelan opposition has probably received in excess of $100 million dollars from the United States. The corruption of Guaidó and his team in search of US funds is in fact so deep, that earlier this month even the US media reported on it. But despite such help, things aren’t going well for the opposition.
Speaking to BBC Mundo after the election, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said that the opposition today had no leader. He added that while he had backed Guaidó in the past, he couldn’t ‘turn a blind eye to mistakes’ including ‘[a]ttempting to overthrow the government from the Altamira overpass’ – a reference to the failed military coup of 30 April 2019. In fact, unmentioned by the BBC, Capriles himself actively participated in the failed 2002 US-backed coup against Hugo Chávez.
While hard-right opposition leaders like Capriles were given considerable favorable international media coverage during the election, no effort was made to balance this even with forces less closely aligned to Washington. Notably, the visit by some 1,500 international electoral observers, the Latin American Council of Electoral Experts (CEELA) and four Latin American ex-presidents together with the ex-Prime Minister of Spain, Rodríguez Zapatero, merited next to no coverage.
Making his third visit to the country, Zapatero declared that: ‘Too many times this electoral system is judged without knowing the process.’ He added that he believed that the ‘electoral process is directed and in motion, for those who are participating. But, those who have not wanted to participate in these parliamentary elections have no moral attitude to question anyone.’
Criticising the European Union’s position towards the South American country, Zapatero stated that he hoped the election would see an end to the ‘terrible sanctions that Venezuela is facing’ as he did not ‘agree with the government of Donald Trump’ and its actions. The ex-president of Ecuador Rafael Correa also made similar statements which, like Rodríguez Zapatero’s comments, went largely unreported.
The same could be said for a politically diverse team from Latin America, the Caribbean, Canada and the United States who went to Venezuela as electoral observers. In their report, they declared that they had ‘observed the Venezuelan people’s sovereignty manifest at the polls in a democratic, free, and peaceful manner.’ Rejecting the opposition’s calls for abstention from the election and ‘the promotion of violence and interference by external factors in Venezuelan life’, they called for dialogue and ‘understanding in Venezuelan society’.
The claims of such visitors are, however, crowded out by those of bodies like Organization of American States (OAS), under the highly questionable leadership of Luis Almagro. This Washington-aligned body attacked the election as a mere fraud. Looking at such claims we might equally remember the OAS’s previous condemnation of the October 2019 presidential election in Bolivia. This was key in facilitating a right-wing coup d’état against Evo Morales, though the accusations were based on specious allegations not founded in reliable data analysis.
At the time, such claims were widely hailed by outlets such as the New York Times as representative of regional opinion. Ultimately, however, such media were forced to backtrack – and finally report the evidence that no fraud had taken place. Given the OAS’s partisan zeal, it is at least unsurprising that Caracas would wish to avoid collaboration with OAS officials. Indeed, given Almagro’s record, Mexico’s government has also called for his resignation.
But what are the effects of the demonisation of Venezuela? Last October, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) published a 53-page report on the impact of US sanctions on Venezuela since 2017 when they were tightened under Trump. While the report is hardly sympathetic towards Caracas, and makes the point that there is an ‘abundance of corruption cases within the Maduro government’, it states that: ‘pressuring the country to run out of revenue with the argument that resources are being diverted by those in power is a radical measure that puts the lives of many Venezuelans at risk.’
Noting that oil revenue has long been used to cover the import of fuel, medicine, food (75 per cent of which is imported) and other basic goods, the report calculates ‘U.S. sanctions have caused the Venezuelan state to lose between $17 billion to $31 billion in revenue’.
According to Alfred-Maurice de Zayas – former secretary of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) – US sanctions have cost the lives of more than 100,000 Venezuelans, in particular due to restrictions on medications entering the country.
Back in Venezuela, through an exchange of emails, Joseph Castellanos and Maury Márquez – a couple in their forties who reside in Caracas with their young daughter – told this writer about the impact of US sanctions. Maury claims that the sanctions have affected her life ‘enormously’ as she no longer has the quality of life she once had. In her view, ‘hyperinflation in the country means you can only cover basic food costs, if that’. While Maury used to work in a state-run publishing house, today she contributes to her family working in the informal economy. Joseph, her partner who still works in the public sector, states:
With separated families, salaries that in most cases do not reach 10 dollars a month, poor public services as a result of the lack of trained personnel and imported materials, a shortage of gasoline due to the same sanctions, and a long et cetera that surrounds the life of Venezuelans, parliamentary elections were held on December 6.
Today, Venezuelan society is scarcely holding together. The fact that massive riots and protests in the country’s working-class areas have not broken out and toppled Maduro is remarkable – a legacy perhaps of the loyalty many may still have for the political project they call the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’. The bare minimum that the mainstream media could do is report accurately on the country’s recent election and the criminal US sanctions aimed at crushing another leftist experiment in Latin America.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.