Pre-Election Fever In Venezuela: Can Maduro Retain Power? – Analysis


The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is shaking with fever ahead of the presidential elections at the end of July. Although the elections seem to be quite far away, the pre-election drama has been going on constantly for a year and a half. The question is whether the elections will be held under fair rules and who will be the opponents to the current socialist president Nicolas Maduro.

Namely, on October 18 last year in Bridgetown under the auspices of Norway, the Barbados Agreement was signed between the Venezuelan government and the strongest opposition group, the Unitary Platform. The agreement is an integral part of broader international efforts to speed up dialogue between the government and the opposition to reach an agreement on free elections.

The agreement provided for the expansion of voter lists, allowing a freer press during the campaign, auditing the electoral process and allowing the presence of foreign observation missions. Already a day later, five people were released from prison, including journalist Rolando Carren and former MP Juan Requesens. The agreement was welcomed by Western powers such as the USA and the European Union, as well as human rights organizations. In a goodwill gesture, the United States eased sanctions on Venezuela’s oil, gas and gold sectors, stressing that it could reinstate the sanctions after six months if the deal collapses.

Maduro cheated the Barbados agreement

In three months of the current year, slowly but surely Maduro’s government stopped pretending to respect the introduction of democratic and political freedoms. Moreover, it has clearly shown that it does not intend to give up authoritarianism and the use of coercive means in order to retain power by all means. The Barbados deal has largely become a dead letter and the Venezuelan government has no intention of holding free presidential elections scheduled for July 28.

In fact, analysts say that this could be one of the most unfree elections in the last 25 years of the rule of Chavista presidents – the late Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. Besides the regime-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) disqualifying the main opponents in the elections, María Corina Machado and Corina Yoris, the government carries out open repression against all persons and organizations that considers a political threat. There have been the imprisonment of prominent representatives of civil society (lawyer Rocío San Miguel), the expulsion of members of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Venezuela (OHCHR), the imprisonment of ordinary prominent citizens such as Youtuber Oscar Alejandro Pérez, and there is also the mysterious murder of Ronald Ojeda.

The sudden death of Ronald Ojeda

The murder of a former lieutenant in the Venezuelan army, 32-year-old Ronald Ojedo, in Chile at the end of February raised doubts about the involvement of the Venezuelan secret services. The main suspect is the Venezuelan criminal group Tren de Aragua. Ojeda has been in Chile since fleeing Venezuela, where authorities detained and tortured him over an alleged failed attempt to oust President Maduro.

In January, the Venezuelan Ministry of Defense claimed that Ojeda was planning “criminal and terrorist actions” against the government. At least three people dressed as police officers abducted Ojeda from his 14th-floor apartment in northern Santiago de Chile shortly after 3 a.m. on February 21. Kidnappers put him in a car that was later found abandoned with police uniforms. On March 1, police officers discovered Ojeda’s body in a coffin buried under cement in Maipú, the southwestern part of Santiago where multiple Tren de Aragua torture facilities were previously discovered. On the same day, the police arrested a 17-year-old Venezuelan for kidnapping and murder. Interpol warrants issued against two more suspects who are believed to have fled to Bolivia and Peru.

On March 11, Chilean President Gabriel Borić promised to destroy the organization. Borić’s statement came after Chilean state prosecutor Héctor Barros accused the group of kidnapping and murdering Ojeda. He said the crime may have been ordered by someone outside Chile and did not rule out political motives. Before the kidnapping, Ojeda had not received any threats from criminal groups, but he felt that he was in danger. Although there is no evidence so far, one of the suspects worked for the former vice president of Venezuela, Tareck El Aissami, when he was the governor of the Venezuelan federal state of Aragua. During El Assaimi’s mandate, Tren de Aragua grew stronger and received the support of the government. It is the largest organized crime group in Venezuela that can be labeled as “mafia”. The organization has spread throughout Latin America and conducts illegal activities of trafficking in people, weapons, drugs and organizes prostitution. The Venezuelan government, of course, rejects links to the Tren de Aragua.

Appearance of Machado

Regarding the election match, María Corina Machado was definitely the most serious opponent to Maduro. In August 2022, she confirmed her participation in the primaries of the Unitary Platform. In March 2023, she started her pre-election tour. She criticized the leadership of the traditional parties, Democratic Action, Justice in the First Place, New Era and People’s Will. On June 30, 2023, the State Comptroller General disqualified her candidacy for 15 years for supporting the self-proclaimed government of Juan Guaido and for supporting international sanctions against Venezuela.

Organizations such as the UN, the Organization of American States (OAS), the EU and numerous Latin American countries have condemned the ban on Machado’s candidacy. This did not prevent her from participating in the primaries. On October 26, 2023, after a convincing victory (93% of the vote), she was declared the sole presidential candidate of the Unitary Platform. Machado’s 15-year disqualification was confirmed by the Supreme Court in January. She appointed Corina Yoris as her replacement. And Yoris was prevented from registering by the Maduro regime, and she appointed Edmundo González Urrutia as a temporary replacement. 

Machado was and remains the opposition’s best candidate because she united the disunited opposition groups in the idea that change can truly happen. She remained composed in the campaign even though her associates were persecuted by the Maduro regime. The regime even declared Vente Venezuela, Machado’s party, a terrorist group. The former Colombian president, Ivan Duque, has warned the international community of the risk that Venezuela’s Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) will attempt to carry out an assassination. Given her many years of political experience and knowledge of foreign policy, Machado has good connections with American political circles and in 2005 she had a meeting with President George W. Bush. Those connections could help her if she comes to power for the eventual serious involvement of American investors in the faltering Venezuelan economy.

Manuel Rosales – the regime’s “Trojan horse”?

In the final hours of candidate filing, the government-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) continued to register candidates for the election except for Machado and Yoris. In the end, there are 13 of them. Many of these candidates are actually “Trojan horses” of the regime, – fake opposition parties who serve Maduro as a democratic decoration for the elections. There are assumptions that one of them is Manuel Rosales, the current governor of the state of Zulia. He was nominated by the New Time party, which at the last moment broke away from the Single Platform. Back in 2006, Rosales faced the late Chávez in the elections. Due to accusations of corruption, he went into exile in Peru in 2009, and returned to Venezuela in 2015. After his return, he was soon sent to prison and then to house arrest. The following year, he was released from prison and his ban on running in elections was suddenly lifted. That is why many observers believe that Rosales sold out to the regime. He served twice as the governor of the state of Zulia and is a recognizable politician at the national level.

Machado attacked Rosales as a hidden regime candidate who divides the opposition. The more candidates there are, especially the less popular ones, it’s better for Maduro. Rosales denied the accusations and promised to support Machado if the CNE ultimately approves her candidacy. Such a scenario is very unlikely and possible only as a result of great international pressure. There is international pressure, not only from the Chavismo-averse West, but also from the left-wing governments of Brazil, Colombia, and Chile, as well as the right-wing or centrist governments of Uruguay, Paraguay, and Ecuador. Current progressive Colombian President Gustavo Petro went so far as to call Maduro an “anti-democratic coup” due to Machado’s disqualification. Lula recently said that there is no “legal or political explanation for the ban” of her candidacy. 

New US sanctions

On April 18, the US government reimposed oil sanctions on the Venezuelan government for not complying with the Barbados Agreement. Considering the widespread electoral irregularities and relentless political repression, this is not a surprise. According to UNHCR estimates, currently 7,7 million Venezuelan citizens have left their homeland. About 10% of them arrived in the USA. If the regime rigs the elections, it is possible that this will further encourage migrant waves ahead of the US elections in November.

The ICC indictment – the nightmare of Maduro and associates

If any of the presidential candidates gets more votes than Maduro, there is no doubt that the Chavista regime will do everything to challenge the results. A socialist leader would not be able to enjoy retirement like presidents in democratic countries after losing the elections. The majority of his own people do not like him because of the introduction of repression and economic collapse, and he could easily become a victim of assassination.

In addition to avoiding such a scenario, Maduro will do everything to remain in the Miraflores presidential palace as this is his best protection against the very likely prosecution and extradition to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In February 2018, the ICC opened a preliminary investigation against the Venezuelan authorities led by Maduro for crimes against humanity. In 2020, the ICC Prosecutor’s Office stated that it believed there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that “since at least April 2017, crimes against humanity have been committed by civilian authorities, members of the armed forces, and pro-government individuals,” and in 2021, ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan announced the opening of an investigation into the situation in the country.

Maduro and his associates are safe in power as they are guarded and protected by Venezuela’s powerful military-police apparatus. However, if they lose power, they could face the same scenario as Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and other high-ranking Serbian officials who were extradited to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). How Milošević and most of the defendants fared in that court is well known, and it is hard to believe that the defendants from Venezuela would have fared differently since there are political motives behind the ICC. More precisely, the indictment was initiated in May 2018 by a panel of “independent experts” appointed by the multilateral Organization of American States (OAS) under American influence.

Maduro uses old communist tactics in new times

If the elections in Venezuela were held according to the high democratic standards of Norway, Denmark, and UK, there is no chance that Maduro would win. According to polls, he enjoys 15% to a maximum of 20% of voter support – more than miserable figures. In the same polls, Machado gets 55 to 70% of voter support. And any other even serious candidate who could freely compete with Maduro would easily win the elections. However, as a grandmaster of political survival, Maduro has found ways to combat poor approval ratings. During his decade in power, he became recognizable by the fact that he received the nickname of “tropical Stalin”. 

Although Maduro’s socialist government is not capable of running an economy that has not been solved in 10 years (including the problem of consumer goods shortages), it has proven to be extremely skilled in electoral rigging, including taking control of the formally independent CNE. The Chavista regime not only wins all elections but also decides who will lose because it disqualifies all relevant political opponents before the elections (Henrique Capriles, María Machado…) or faces indictments, prison and exile (Leopoldo Lopez, Juan Guaidó). At the beginning of March, the NCE sent an invitation to observers from the EU and the USA to come to the elections, but their schedules are too busy and they cannot monitor the process properly. The Venezuelan diaspora of over 7 million people, which is predominantly anti-socialist, is excluded from the electoral process and cannot register to vote. The local population voting for the first time was given a deadline of April 16. Since the beginning of this year, the government has shut down nine radio stations that criticized the government. Thus, Maduro has truly taken over the old communist tactics.

A replay of the Cuban scenario

It would be correct to say that Maduro has turned Venezuela into a new Cuba and that he is the Venezuelan Fidel Castro without the charisma. Like Cuba, Venezuela has become a “socialist paradise” that everyone is abandoning despite the promotion of socialist ideals.

Admittedly, the situation has improved somewhat in recent years with the introduction of transactions in dollars and certain liberal steps, but the country is still an economic warehouse and recovery is not in sight. Statistics show everything. Although the national GDP grew by 5% last year, inflation in March was slightly less than a whopping 68%. In 2023, unemployment was 5,9%, and the rate of extreme poverty was 59%. Venezuela is the worst in corruption in the competition of 15 Latin American countries, the rate of democratic freedom is 15 out of 100.

Pre-election fever

Maduro’s victory in the elections on July 28 (Hugo Chavez’s birthday) is likely when repression and election rigging are taken into account. It is hard to believe that an even more serious election process could be allowed because elections are by their very nature uncertain and a spontaneous. Mass participation of the people can change everything. For example, in the 1988 referendum, the regime of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet fell. However, if election theft due to poor organization becomes more than obvious to the public, large violent street protests appear in Caracas and elsewhere with increased international pressure, it could happen that Chavista elites reject Maduro to save their political idea and movement.

What Maduro should fear most is the betrayal of his own political circle within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). There are indications that palace intrigues are being conducted in Miraflores, that is, factions within Chavismo want to find a way to end the decade of Venezuelan political-economic crisis. Due to the lack of money in the state budget, the government has fewer opportunities to buy the support of the poorest sections of the population, which are the foundation of the Chavista electoral base. It is certain that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is shaken by pre-election fever, and the future of the country after the elections is more than uncertain.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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