Seeking the Best from a Skewed Poll: Hard Choices for Venezuela
Seeking the Best from a Skewed Poll: Hard Choices for Venezuela
Venezuelan citizens register to vote ahead of the upcoming presidential election, in Caracas, Venezuela March 19, 2024.
Venezuelan citizens register to vote ahead of the upcoming presidential election, in Caracas, Venezuela March 19, 2024. REUTERS/Gaby Oraa
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 17 minutes

Seeking the Best from a Skewed Poll: Hard Choices for Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is tilting the July presidential election in his favour, in violation of the 2023 Barbados accord. While Maduro should face consequences, the U.S. should take a calibrated approach to the reimposition of sanctions.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s brazen moves to tilt the playing field in his favour ahead of the presidential election on 28 July have put the opposition in a tight spot; they also pose a dilemma for outside actors such as the U.S. and Venezuela’s neighbours. Maduro, despite his unpopularity, aspires to win a third six-year term. Partisan electoral and judicial authorities have barred his most popular rivals from registering as candidates, riding roughshod over a pact reached by the Venezuelan government in October 2023 that promised competitive elections. Signed in Barbados, this agreement paved the way for U.S. sanctions relief. But with Caracas abandoning its commitments, the Biden administration must now decide if it will reinstate those sanctions and, if so, how. While violating the Barbados pact should have consequences, a measured approach rather than a full snapback of sanctions is likely the best way for the U.S. to maintain leverage over Caracas, which it can use to advocate against the further deterioration of electoral conditions. As for the Venezuelan opposition, which may be tempted to sit out flawed polls, the lesson from 2018, when it did abstain, is that doing so again would only work to Maduro’s benefit. They should instead rally around a single candidate to challenge the incumbent. 

Maduro’s Mindset

Maduro, whose likely vote share hovers around 20 per cent according to pollsters, seems more willing to face the costs of restored U.S. economic sanctions than risk losing power. In the face of Venezuela’s catastrophic economic collapse, which slashed 80 per cent off GDP in under ten years, and following a full-throttle opposition offensive to oust him in 2019, the incumbent sees his political survival as a victory over U.S.-led attempts to destroy the “revolution”. Observers close to the chavista movement, named after Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez, have long insisted that competitive elections would be an option only if the government was certain it would win. But the government has nevertheless negotiated with the opposition over conditions for the July poll, largely in the hope of relief from economic sanctions. Most of these were enacted by the Trump administration during the period of “maximum pressure” on Maduro that followed the opposition’s claim of a rigged election in 2018.

Venezuelan officials hoped that a cash windfall from renewed trade in oil and gas on the open market after the lifting of sanctions in 2023 would allow them to boost miserable public sector wages, control the exchange rate and finance social spending, thereby enabling Maduro to triumph in a reasonably fair poll. But while sanctions removal has increased incomes, pushed inflation to its lowest rate in over a decade and enabled the government to offer pre-electoral handouts, the improvements have not been enough to produce a massive change of heart among voters.

Opposition forces have struggled to decide on a path forward.

Harried and thwarted by the government, opposition forces have struggled to decide on a path forward. The candidate chosen in the opposition Unitary Platform’s 2023 primary, María Corina Machado, has been banned from running for any office. The National Electoral Council (CNE) proceeded in March to block the registration of a substitute candidate, retired academic Corina Yoris, although it has so far allowed three other mainstream opposition candidates to stand. There is a danger the opposition may not coalesce around a standard-bearer on the ballot; some members may ultimately call for a boycott of the election, as happened in 2018. More pragmatic members of the opposition insist that voters must be given a viable option, and that one of the remaining opposition contenders could still emerge as a front runner, in view of high levels of public discontent with chavista rule.

For Washington, meanwhile, the critical date will be 18 April, when the U.S. government is due to announce whether it will extend the six-month licence granted in October that allows Venezuela to sell oil and gas on the open market. To judge by statements from the Biden administration, there is every reason to expect at least some sanctions to be restored. But the scale and detail of any reimposition will also depend on concerns transcending matters of electoral fairness. Policymakers are wary of returning to a pressure-based strategy when the last such campaign failed to dislodge Maduro, despite proponents’ vows that his government would collapse within months; they are also fearful of exacerbating the migration crisis on the U.S. southern border by making life more difficult for Venezuelans. In 2023, around three fifths of the half-million migrants who headed north on foot across the dangerous Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama were Venezuelan. Proportions were similar in the first quarter of 2024. There is also strong pressure from business, particularly the oil lobby, to end the economic and financial isolation of a Western Hemisphere country that claims the world’s largest oil reserves.

Leaving Barbados Behind

On 17 October 2023, after months of arduous, closed-door negotiations facilitated by the Norwegian government, Maduro and the Unitary Platform signed a pact under which the government committed to a set of minimal electoral conditions. In reality, since the opposition alone had little to offer in exchange, the agreement was the product of a set of parallel talks between Caracas and Washington in which the quid pro quo was significant – albeit temporary and reversible – relief from U.S. economic sanctions. Additionally, the Biden administration agreed to drop money laundering charges against a key Maduro ally, Colombo-Venezuelan businessman Alex Saab, and release him from custody in exchange for the freedom of several political prisoners and jailed U.S. citizens. 

Through his control of all branches of government, in particular the judiciary and the electoral authority, Maduro has since breached some of the October accord’s most important provisions. Domestic and foreign condemnation of the treatment meted out to opposition candidacies has been particularly heated. Having agreed to respect parties’ right to select their candidate “freely … in accordance with their own internal mechanisms”, the government allowed the Unitary Platform’s primary election to take place on 22 October. But hopes for a relatively normal general election campaign soon vanished when the Supreme Court suspended all the effects of the primary result after Machado (who stood despite already having been banned) won with over 92 per cent of votes. 

One chavista told Crisis Group that [Machado's] candidacy “represents the continuation of conflict” rather than a path to peaceful political coexistence

Negotiators knew from the outset that the Machado candidacy would be unacceptable to the government, which has told the opposition that hardliners like her are “at war” with chavismo. Her participation would not only have meant probable defeat for the government, but also a threat to “bury socialism” and prosecute top officials, including Maduro himself. One chavista told Crisis Group that her candidacy “represents the continuation of conflict” rather than a path to peaceful political coexistence. In the government’s eyes, the Barbados agreement did not commit it to lifting political bans, merely to offering a mechanism to review them. 

Other government actions, however, represent clear transgressions. A core condition of the accord concerned the electoral register, which has not been comprehensively audited since 2005 and excludes millions of Venezuelans of voting age. Although the electoral authority did launch a special voter registration operation (scheduled to last from 16 March to 18 April), it also took pains to make it hard for voters to register or update addresses and other details. An estimated 4.5 million potential voters live abroad, but only a handful are registered. Consulates in countries with large Venezuelan diasporas delayed the start of the process by up to two weeks and imposed onerous conditions, including proof of legal residency and possession of a valid passport and a national identity card (documents that may be hard or impossible to come by outside Venezuela in a form satisfactory to consular authorities). In Venezuela itself, where another three million or so are not on the register, the number of enrolment sites and the time available are wholly insufficient for the scale of the operation.

Despite promising equal access to the media, the government has intensified its harassment and closure of independent press outlets as well as abused its control of state media to transmit official propaganda. In February alone, five radio stations in different parts of the country were arbitrarily closed. When Maduro went to the CNE on 25 March to register his candidacy he gave a speech to thousands of supporters outside the building, transmitted live on state television, even as the Unitary Platform struggled to register a candidate online. Although the Barbados agreement provides for freedom of movement around the country for “candidates and political actors”, Machado has long been prevented from travelling by air, while government supporters often block roads and on occasion even physically attack participants in opposition rallies and meetings. The government argues that the $15 million bounty for Maduro’s arrest offered by the Trump administration (and still in force) represents a restriction on his movements, too. This claim is accurate, and Caracas and Washington have in fact discussed scrapping the bounty. Still, the Barbados deal did not include its removal.

A Crackdown on Critics

The chavista administration has also failed to uphold the promise to promote “a public discourse and a social and political climate favourable to the development of a peaceful and participatory electoral process”. Instead, it has mounted a severe crackdown on opposition politicians and civil society activists, as well as treated dissent or criticism as evidence of a counter-revolutionary plot.

In the most prominent case to date, the intelligence services on 11 February arrested a leading civil society activist, Rocío San Miguel, a defence and security expert and head of an NGO, along with her daughter and four other family members, some of whom were later released. San Miguel, who has been held virtually incommunicado and denied access to her lawyers, is accused of involvement in one of five military conspiracies the government claims to have uncovered. Four days later, Maduro ordered members of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to leave the country after it called San Miguel’s case one of “forced disappearance” because authorities had neither revealed her whereabouts nor brought her before a court. The government has also targeted Machado’s party Vente Venezuela, arresting five of its regional coordinators in late 2023 and early 2024, and issuing arrest warrants against some of her closest collaborators on 20 March. Two of them have been given the same treatment as San Miguel, while another six of her collaborators took refuge in the Argentine embassy.

The National Assembly, controlled by a chavista majority, has put into motion a series of repressive laws that could virtually prohibit dissent.

The National Assembly, controlled by a chavista majority, has put into motion a series of repressive laws that could virtually prohibit dissent. On 23 March, it passed the Essequibo Defence Law, supposedly aimed at furthering Venezuela’s longstanding claim over a large part of neighbouring Guyana. The law establishes severe penalties for any individual or organisation deemed to be “directly or indirectly” sympathetic to the Guyanese position, including bans on standing for elected office or obtaining party registration. While opposition candidates have not publicly opposed Maduro’s sabre rattling over Essequibo, the law significantly expands the government’s legal justification for silencing its opponents. 

Critics have dubbed another bill under discussion the “anti-society law”. It would impose such stringent controls on NGOs that most would have to close, while the government would be given powers to shut down any remaining groups at a moment’s notice. In early April, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez also presented a draft “anti-fascist” law that would impose lengthy prison sentences for conduct or language the government defines as “fascist”, while revoking the licence of any media outlet that crossed the arbitrarily defined line. (The draft defines “neoliberalism” and “conservative moral values” as fascist.) 

Opposition Dilemma

The government claims that it is in fact allowing for a competitive election. Officials insist that the electoral field is as diverse as at any time in Venezuelan history, pointing out that there are twelve non-government candidates and 37 registered parties. The majority, however, not only represent no threat to the incumbent but work to Maduro’s benefit by dividing the opposition vote and potentially confusing voters: several candidates are backed by some of the dozen parties that employ names and symbols of opposition forces but have been subjected to judicial intervention and are run by government-linked factions. As the winner of Venezuelan presidential elections is the candidate who gains the most votes in a single round, and previous polls have seen victory secured with as little as 30 per cent of the vote, Maduro is betting on a divide-and-conquer strategy. 

Even so, the government has not entirely prohibited all opposition runners, allowing three candidates to stand who, in different ways, do represent the Unitary Platform and its allies. One of these, retired diplomat Edmundo González, was admitted under a last-minute deal between the government and the Platform that allows the most popular opposition party coalition (the Mesa de Unidad Democrática) a presence on the ballot. González is a stand-in while the coalition determines who to back. Manuel Rosales, leader of one of the main four parties in the Unitary Platform, Un Nuevo Tiempo, and governor of Venezuela’s most populous state, Zulia, was registered unilaterally by his party at the last minute. He is regarded with suspicion by many voters, who see the fact that the government did not bar his participation as evidence of a backroom deal with chavismo – an allegation he denies. The third is a one-time leading member of Un Nuevo Tiempo, and former opposition member of the electoral authority, Enrique Márquez, a widely respected independent seen by some as a potential compromise candidate. 

Bans on the most outspoken critics of chavismo ... have frayed opposition unity and posed hard questions as to which electoral strategy to embrace.

Bans on the most outspoken critics of chavismo – combined with the green light shown to a handful of moderates – have frayed opposition unity and posed hard questions as to which electoral strategy to embrace. The main opposition alliance has long been an uneasy partnership between moderates and hardliners, with the former stressing electoral participation, negotiation and gradual accumulation of supporters while the latter have favoured confrontation and electoral boycotts. The failure of the “maximum pressure” campaign launched in 2019 to dislodge Maduro caused the pendulum to swing back to the moderates. The decision to hold a primary to select a 2024 presidential candidate, however, led to the victory ofMachado, a long-time abstentionist and outspoken critic of the Unitary Platform.

Cracks in the opposition movement could emerge once again. Machado has held firm to the demand that she (or her anointed substitute Yoris) be the opposition’s standard bearer and has refused to back candidates acceptable to the government. In defence of her stance, Machado has pointed out that Venezuelan law allows candidates to register up until ten days before the election. She insists that she or Yoris could still get on the ballot. The government, however, has said that only the thirteen candidates already registered can compete, ruling out both women. Moreover, even if the Maduro administration did allow Machado or Yoris to run, any changes in the candidacies after 20 April will not be reflected on the electronic ballot, which could confuse voters. Against this backdrop, Machado might call once again for abstention, which could prod many voters to stay at home and hand Maduro another victory. That would be a mistake, not least because polls show the president could lose badly to any candidate backed by the united, mainstream opposition. The 2023 election in Guatemala is a reminder that even tightly controlled polls can produce outsider victories: Bernardo Arévalo pulled off an upset after political forces that had barred other candidates miscalculated the support he would draw.

Of course, should victory by any of the opposition candidates appear likely in the closing days of the campaign, the Maduro government could be tempted to take drastic action to head off the threat of an upset. Whatever shape this sort of last-minute election meddling might take, it would in all likelihood trigger protests within the country as well as widespread international condemnation, led by the U.S., the European Union and EU member states, but likely including Venezuela’s left-leaning neighbours Brazil and Colombia, which issued sharp criticism of Maduro after Yoris was prevented from registering. The consequences of a major election dispute with international ramifications are hard to foretell. Pushed into a corner, Maduro could risk the censure that would accompany a complete authoritarian clampdown. Alternatively, he might seek to avert reproof by launching comprehensive negotiations with more moderate forces leading to some form of controlled transition or power sharing scheme. 

The Least Worst Path Forward

In the absence of conditions for a free election, what is the best-case scenario for Venezuela, and how can it most effectively be achieved? The opposition boycott of the 2018 elections was the prelude to years of wasted effort, the net effect of which was to leave the country more impoverished, the opposition leadership largely discredited and Maduro not only still in power but more beholden to U.S. global adversaries – including China, Russia and Iran. The opposition now is weaker than it was in 2018. To propose the same approach that it took then would be to prefer a righteous posture over the pursuit of practical results and to condemn Venezuela to another futile and economically devastating standoff. 

While the prospect that Maduro will hand the presidential sash to a successor from the opposition in January 2025, when the next presidential term begins, currently appears improbable, an election under unfair conditions offers more than a binary choice of accepting defeat or refusing to participate. A strong showing by a united opposition that falls short of outright victory could play an important role in revitalising chavismo’s adversaries. The narrow opposition defeat in the presidential election of 2013 was followed soon after by victory in legislative polls. Regional, local and legislative elections are due in 2025-2026, but if the opposition is to take advantage of them it will need to emerge from the 28 July poll with its political capital intact and, preferably, enhanced. Most Venezuelans are well aware that Maduro could not win a free election, although many chavistas argue that his weakness is a product of U.S. sanctions. If the opposition can demonstrate that it remains robust and popular, even when the playing field is heavily slanted against it, the government will have to choose between excluding it by force or negotiating some kind of coexistence pact. 

For foreign governments, NGOs and multilaterals the task is to remain engaged and continue to push for the best electoral conditions possible. Genuine election observation, even under less than ideal conditions, remains important. In Barbados, the Maduro government committed to inviting observers from the EU, the UN, the Carter Center, the African Union and the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organizations to the polls. While invitations to all of these have been issued, the government delayed their delivery and publicly expressed indifference as to whether or not the electoral timetable would allow for missions to be deployed. Negotiations over the details of these missions are under way, but in the absence of a valid and trusted domestic arbiter, opposition hopes for minimising irregularities lean heavily on the work of international monitors. 

The U.S. ... has the biggest leverage of all, and will need to decide how to use it.

The U.S., however, has the biggest leverage of all, and will need to decide how to use it. Maduro’s tilting of the electoral playing field demands a response if the Norwegian-led negotiation process is to maintain its credibility. But while the Biden administration should ponder alternatives that send a strong signal, it should preserve the ability to use sanctions relief as an incentive to open up the political system. If the U.S. declares Barbados a failure, and snaps back the full suite of sanctions it rescinded in October, Maduro could well walk away with the impression that he has nothing left to lose in skewing the playing field yet further. 

The U.S. should take a more measured approach instead. For example, it could again rescind General License 44 – which allows the Venezuelan state-owned oil company to sell to U.S. buyers – while leaving individual licences in place for specific U.S. companies so as to maintain U.S. presence in the Venezuelan energy sector. (This tack might among other things help address worries that Venezuela will otherwise have no choice but to deal with U.S. adversaries.) To avoid ruffling feathers within European governments, which might object if the U.S. offers loopholes for U.S. companies but not European ones, the Biden administration could also provide “comfort letters” to European energy firms as needed; that would in essence permit those entities to continue doing business with the state oil company. Another option would be to extend the existing licence, but only for three months – ie, until just before the election – making clear that it will not be extended again if there is further slippage in terms of electoral conditions.

There is also a particular onus on the left-leaning governments of Venezuela’s neighbours Colombia and Brazil, both of which have developed effective channels of communication with Caracas, to steer the Maduro government in the direction of an election that is as credible as it can be under the circumstances. One avenue they might explore is assistance in creating the verification mechanism contemplated in the Barbados agreement, under which compliance with the accord’s terms would be periodically assessed and which Norway (which facilitated the agreement) has indicated is a priority. 

The Case for Pragmatism

Whether this election paves the way to greater peace or more conflict, it still represents just one more episode in a political dispute that, with occasional peaks of violence, has persisted for almost a quarter-century. Throughout, both the government and opposition have regarded the overall process essentially as a zero-sum game in which the goal is to defeat the other side. But the electoral cycle that begins in July and concludes in 2026 also provides a fresh opportunity to correct the outright mutual hostility displayed by both factions, particularly over the past decade. If approached correctly, this cycle could produce a period of political cohabitation, with chavismo controlling the executive and the opposition leading – or at least playing a major role in – the legislature, permitting the negotiation of a comprehensive end to the long-running political crisis. In all likelihood, the government – and its key allies in the military – will only engage in serious talks about a potential return to representative politics if their political viability is truly at risk. With all its flaws, the 28 July election offers a chance to begin to deliver the message that the government’s standing is in peril.

Some members of the Venezuelan opposition and their international allies will regard this approach not only as naïve but unconscionable, since it will inevitably involve concessions to what they see as a criminal dictatorship. It is worth reflecting, however, that all of the opposition’s most important achievements have come through the ballot box or negotiation, while its biggest setbacks have been caused by intransigence. Thankfully, a majority of the opposition has now embraced a more pragmatic approach. Despite its crackdowns and the recent narrowing of civic and political space, Venezuela has not seen the levels of extreme political repression common in Nicaragua or Cuba. Pushing for fair elections without giving Maduro an excuse to tip Venezuela further toward authoritarianism is a tightrope that foreign powers will have to tread with care.

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