Venezuela’s November Elections: Washington’s New Strategy but Same Old Assumptions

Political analyst Steve Ellner takes stock of Washington's Venezuela policy and the playing field ahead of November's "mega-elections."


An abridged version of this article was posted by The Progressive.

It seems just yesterday that Elliot Abrams declared the Trump administration was “working hard” to oust President Nicolas Maduro from office. Now Abrams (currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations), along with the Biden administration, is urging the Venezuelan opposition to participate in the state and local elections slated for November 21. Washington’s change of tack, however, is a far cry from renouncing the right to intervene in Venezuela’s internal affairs.

Not surprisingly, Washington has prevailed on the rightist opposition led by self-proclaimed president Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo López to abandon their three-year policy of boycotting elections, which they claimed totally lacks legitimacy. Electoral participation is a hard pill for both politicians to swallow because it shatters the illusion nurtured by Washington that Guaidó is the rightful and existing president and that he is just days or weeks from occupying the presidential palace.

In the way of damage control, López announced that he opposed participation in the November contests but that the rank and file of his and Guaidó’s Voluntad Popular party pressured him into accepting the new line. López, who represents an extreme position even within his party, was for the U.S. “our man in Caracas” until Guaidó’s self-proclamation in 2019. Recent examples of López’s extremism are his remark that the main business organization Fedecámaras “betrayed the country” by inviting Venezuelan vice president Delcy Rodríguez as guest of honor at its annual meeting and his attack on the European Union for legitimizing Maduro by agreeing to send electoral observers in November.

The rejection of Maduro’s legitimacy dates back to early 2015 when President Obama declared Venezuela an “extraordinary threat to U S national security.” The statement not only scared off a number of large US corporations which closed shop and left, but it set the stage for the Trump administration’s severe sanctions and activist diplomacy designed to intimidate corporations throughout the world into severing relations with Venezuela. Francisco Rodríguez, Venezuelan economist formerly with Bank of America and a leading opposition advisor, extrapolated that had it not been for the sanctions oil production in the high-yielding Orinoco River region would have been three to five times greater this year.

In the November elections, Voluntad Popular will run candidates on the ticket of the Democratic Roundtable Unity (MUD) alliance which groups the major parties of the opposition. Unlike the MUD, a host of smaller moderate parties of the opposition are running candidates which have criticized the sanctions and recognize Maduro’s legitimacy. The opposition’s fragmentation enhances the possibility that Maduro’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) and its allies will achieve a plurality at the polls. The polling firm Hinterlaces puts the PSUV’s popularity at 34% compared to 13% for Voluntad Popular and the rest of the opposition combined. In contrast, opposition pollster Luis Vicente León claims that the PSUV is at 20 to 25%. In spite of the PSUV’s lead, the Nicaragua phenomenon of 1990, when Nicaraguans voted the Sandinistas out of office out of fear of continued U.S.-promoted violence and economic sanctions, may factor into November’s results to the opposition’s benefit.

Biden’s policy: How Much of a Change?

Maduro told Bloomberg that notwithstanding Biden’s pledge to overhaul Trump’s foreign policy, practically nothing has changed toward Venezuela. Maduro lamented “there hasn’t been a single positive sign, none” although he went on to recognize that at least State Department officials “agree with a political dialogue between Venezuelans.” Abrams also indicated that the Republicans and Democrats are on the same page when it comes to Venezuela. Under Biden, the sanctions remain intact and government officials have indicated they are in no hurry to review them.

Nevertheless, Biden’s policy departs from Trump’s strategy of inciting a military coup and threatening military intervention with his “all options are on the table” talk. In addition, no longer does the president of the United States pose for photo ops with the wives of López and Guaidó. The Panam Post noted that the Biden administration, anxious to score a diplomatic success and skeptical of the Venezuelan opposition’s political capacity, has downplayed Venezuela’s importance and “turned its eye toward Nicaragua” where the prospects for regime change are brighter. Hardly an abandonment of regime-change machinations.

The real change in 2021 has been in the implementation of a piecemeal policy of prodding Maduro to accommodate U.S. economic and political interests, as opposed to regime change. Indeed, days after the 2020 U.S. elections Abrams recommended to Biden that he no longer use sanctions as a regime-change strategy against Venezuela and that instead he use them as leverage to wring concessions. The horse-trading approach consists of offering to modify or lift a given sanction in return for a given concession from Maduro.

In the interview with Bloomberg, Maduro indicated that he knew how to play the game: “Bondholders…know it’s possible to invest in Venezuela, and win-win, as long as this whole persecution and these sanctions aren’t there. The oil sector knows…we can advance much more.”

In turn, Bloomberg reporter Erik Schatzker voiced the State Department’s strategy by asking “When negotiations start, if they do, will you look for an all-or-nothing agreement or will you accept a gradual process?” and then “How far are you willing to go with this [economic] reopening?”

Washington’s leverage approach puts the lie to the idea that Venezuela policy was ever really about democracy. Exerting pressure to attain concessions in favor of U.S. corporate interests is hardly tantamount to democracy promotion. Carlos Ron, Venezuela’s Vice-minister of Foreign Relations for North America, told me that despite Washington’s posturing it “has never had any real concern about Venezuelan democracy and has attempted to undermine and dismiss all election processes since President Chavez.”

On the political front, concessions have been titled in favor of Voluntad Popular in accordance with Washington’s preferences. In the process, the moderate parties of the opposition have been shunted aside. Last year Washington sanctioned four of their leaders for having defied U.S. policy which at the time opposed participation in congressional elections.

Anxious to get Washington to lift the sanctions, Maduro released in July Voluntad Popular’s Freddy Guevara, accused of fomenting violence, from prison. Not surprisingly, it was Guaidó who got to name the opposition’s negotiating team for talks which are being held with the Venezuelan government in Mexico, and he included Guevara as a prominent member.

Maduro’s political concessions in the leadup to the November elections include increasing the opposition’s representation on the 5-member National Electoral Commission from one to two (both were chosen by the opposition) and releasing political prisoners. Maduro’s attempted tradeoffs were designed to encourage Voluntad Popular and its allies to abandon electoral abstentionism and in turn to get Washington to lift the sanctions.

White House spokesperson Ned Price has announced that Washington will “ease sanctions” if there is “significant progress” in negotiations between Maduro and the opposition. Similarly, Abrams refers to possible “relaxation of sanctions or agreement to use some frozen assets for health and related objectives,” depending on the concessions that Maduro is willing to grant.

Just as in the case of the administration’s horse-trading approach for obtaining economic concessions, its piecemeal strategy on the political front favoring leaders on the right makes it hard to make the case that democracy is the end game. In this sense Trump’s all-or-nothing approach may have had more credibility. After all, one may ask at what point will Biden consider Maduro’s Venezuela democratic, a moot issue considering the many flaws of U.S. democracy.

November Elections: No Predictable Winner

Washington’s binary rhetoric pitting the good guys against the bad would convince anyone that the choice in November is between Maduro and Guaidó. Having taken up the Washington mantle of “our man in Caracas,” Guaidó is assumed to be the main spokesperson for the opposition, and Voluntad Popular is assumed to be the opposition’s largest party. This status belies Guaidó’s total discredit in Venezuela and the fact that Voluntad Popular is a relatively small party on the radical fringe of the opposition. Indeed, Washington’s privileging of Guaidó and his party has done the opposition harm given the fact that other anti-government parties and leaders have greater credibility in Venezuela.

A string of ill-fated if not quixotic regime-change attempts and corruption scandals have taken their toll on Guaidó’s popularity, which according to Hinterlaces is under 17%.

Most of the scandals involve the Venezuelan state’s foreign assets that have been turned over to Guaidó by governments that do not recognize Maduro. The latest such case is the petrochemical company Monómeros which has operated in Colombia for over half a century but under Guaidó has gone through five General Managers and is now filing for bankruptcy. Top leaders of Voluntad Popular’s allied Primero Justicia party accuse Guaidó appointees of driving the company to the ground due to incompetence, politicization, and shady deals. Voluntad Popular’s response is that Primero Justicia deserves part of the blame because appointees of both parties shared leadership positions in the company. One Maduro sympathizer called the mutual accusations a “falling out of thieves.”

According to Venezuelan political analyst Ociel López, to understand the clash over Monómeros it is necessary to look at the larger picture. According to him, the infighting reflects the ongoing rivalry between the two supposedly allied parties and Primero Justicia’s insistence that the November elections be prioritized rather than dismissed ahead of time as fraudulent, as Voluntad Popular leaders have done. López adds that neutralizing Voluntad Popular “makes it easier for the opposition to enter the electoral lane” and emerge victorious at the polls.

The rivalry between the two supposedly allied parties going into the November 21 elections is only the tip of the iceberg. As of September 6, there were 70,244 candidates, the vast majority of whom are anti-government, for 3,082 positions. While the four largest parties are united in the MUD, other groupings blame them for their botched attempts at regime change under Washington’s guidance. In the greater Caracas area, a number of contests for governor, mayor and municipal council pit the MUD candidates against the recently created Neighborhood Force. Claiming to have strong community support, Neighborhood Force faults the MUD for rejecting primaries as a means to select united opposition candidates.

Opposition pollster Luis Vicente León predicts an abstention rate of 50 to 60% in spite of the national and international attention that these contests have received. According to León, the problem for the opposition is its extreme fragmentation and the fact that in some cases it runs “candidates who are unpresentable, who arrive on the scene as a result of a political agreement.”

U.S. sanctions have wreaked havoc on the Venezuelan economy and people. How could it be otherwise when for a century Venezuela has been totally dependent on the export of oil which is now being blocked by the sanctions against any firm anywhere in the world that dares to purchase the product.

On the political front U.S. policy toward Venezuela has also had a devastating effect in that it exacerbates polarization at the expense of a middle ground of opposition moderates as well as Maduro critics on the left – who the president has little tolerance for. The moderates are more in tune with the concerns of Venezuelans than Voluntad Popular in that they oppose the sanctions and favor focusing on solutions to concrete economic problems, as opposed to regime change. León revealed in August that 76.4 % of Venezuelans reject the sanctions and feel they have had no political impact.

The big dilemma for the opposition is getting out the vote in November. In a sense Voluntad Popular is shooting itself in the foot by insisting (in something out of Trump’s playbook) that the elections will be rigged, thus discouraging their own voters. But more than that, the predicted 50% abstention rate in November reflects the widespread repudiation of the entire political class among voters. In effect, half the country faults the government for the nation’s pressing economic problems but also the opposition for having fallen for Washington’s regime-change agenda.

Over the last 3 years, the main parties of the opposition, seconded by the mainstream media, took credit for the high abstention rate in Venezuelan elections, claiming that those who did not vote sympathized with their cause. Now that these same parties have opted for electoral participation, the expected 50% abstention rate for November 21 is a clear indication of their overestimated popular support. Indeed, the MUD’s failure to obtain a sizeable majority among eligible voters will demonstrate the folly of Washington’s continued recognition of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful president.

Steve Ellner is a retired professor of Venezuela’s Universidad de Oriente and currently Associate Managing Editor of Latin American Perspectives. His latest edited book is Latin American Extractivism: Dependency, Resource Nationalism, and Resistance in Broad Perspective (Rowman and Littlefield, 2021).

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.