SANTIAGO — The Venezuelan dictator, Nicolás Maduro, has been defeated on his own turf. International observers, numerous foreign press sources and the opposition estimated the abstention rate in the May 20 elections to be somewhere between 70-80% of eligible voters. And according to an anonymous source cited by Reuters, even the Maduro-controlled CNE, Venezuela's National Electoral Council, put voter participation at just 32.3%.
If those estimates are correct, and if, as the CEN announced, Maduro received nearly 68% of votes cast, this would give him the support of just 14-22% of registered voters. The real victor, therefore, was the democratic opposition and its call for a boycott of the election. The No vote won.
The result gives the opposition moral legitimacy, although in practical terms, little changes. The CNE has declared Maduro the winner, and Venezuela's twisted institutional arrangement gives him a second, six-year presidential term. With control of the armed forces, judiciary and legislature, and without any real checks to his powers or those of his cronies, he is, for all intents and purposes, a dictator.
And yet, some Latin American governments — in Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, namely — continue to support Maduro. That's shameful, because in doing so, they're condoning not only a mockery of an election, but also the ineptitude of a government that has decimated Venezuela, destroyed its democratic institutions, dismantled its productive apparatus, impoverished the middle class and spread hunger and disease among the poor.
The opposition has reason to feel discouraged. But the numbers cited above should also give them some hope, especially since they contribute to a growing international consensus against the regime. The European Union, the Organization of American States, the UN Human Rights Council, the United States and the Lima Group, a bloc that includes 13 Latin American nations plus Canada, have all denounced the election's illegitimacy and stated they would neither recognize the results nor Maduro as head of state.
He is, for all intents and purposes, a dictator.
The Lima Group has also called for coordinated measures to isolate Maduro, including by getting international and regional financial bodies to refuse loans to Venezuela for its unconstitutional method of seeking loans without parliament's assent. Monies would only be paid "when these are to finance humanitarian aid actions," in anticipation of the enormous humanitarian crisis the regime is provoking.
Conditions in Venezuela are dire. The economy has shrunk 50% since Maduro came to power in 2013. The minimum wage in many state firms is, in real terms, equivalent to three dollars a month. The U.S. dollar, worth four bolivars in the 1980s, today changes at 700,000 bolivars. The IMF expects inflation to reach 13,000% this year, and various reports are putting the jobless rate at 30%.
Government officials, members of the armed forces and other privileged elements have money to buy what they need on the black market and in neighboring countries. But in the poorest districts, 70% of children are under nourished.
Maduro voting in Caracas on May 20 — Photo: Boris Vergara/Xinhua/ZUMA
Within Venezuela, the opposition has the historical duty to act in unison. Abroad, Maduro's Venezuela must be declared a pariah state. Countries must impede the entry of its officials, impose sanctions on them such as freezing their assets, and push for humanitarian intervention to supply food and medicine for the poorest in Venezuela. Latin American countries should withdraw their ambassadors and leave only essential consular and humanitarian staff at their embassies in Caracas. The Lima Group's new measures suggest this may happen.
The United States, which has already imposed sanctions on several senior regime officials, announced after the elections that it would no longer buy Venezuelan debt. But Russia and China have shown support for the recent vote. That's deplorable. It's also the case the United States remains Maduro's main financial backer as it buys half a million barrels of crude a day from PDVSA, the state oil firm. And rising oil prices — due in part to the instability U.S. President Trump has helped foster in the Middle East — have pushed oil prices to $80 a barrel (compared to just $30 in 2015). This means that the United States is paying Venezuela an additional $25 million a day.
Suffocating Venezuela through finance and trade is one way of recovering democracy, but it must come with more political isolation and a multilateral humanitarian initiative to supply Venezuelans with their basic needs. Recently, in addition to shortages of food and medicines and power cuts, Caracas has had to contend with acute water rationing. Large-scale outbreaks of measles and diphtheria are beginning, which would be entirely avoidable with vaccines.
Maduro is a calamity for Venezuela, and his farcical election an insult on top of the serious injury the country has already endured. Political logic would state that a regime that inflicts oppression, hunger and illness on its people has no future. It must be brought down, and that ultimately can only be done by its people or the democratic opposition. For that, they need the unconditional support of Latin America's democratic governments.
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