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Free and Fair Elections: Will Venezuelans Ever be Heard?

On January 23rd, as National Assembly President Juan Guaido swore in as Interim President of Venezuela, the international community faced an important choice, one that would have serious consequences for the people of Venezuela.

The United States, members of the Lima Group, the Organization of American States and others quickly began to voice their support for the opposition leader. In contrast, countries like Cuba, Russia, Nicaragua and China expressed their support for Nicolas Maduro and his de facto government. Mexico and Uruguay called for a dialogue between the opposition and the government, while members of the European Union announced they would recognize Guaido as Interim President if Maduro did not call for elections by February 3. However, many in the international community are wary of any dialogue or elections organized by Maduro and his crony electoral council. 

As a result of failed dialogue attempts in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018, the Venezuelan people have lost faith in this approach creating the change they seek. In the past, the Maduro government used dialogue as a tactic to stall or extend its time in power—appeasing the international community with talks while confusing the opposition with empty offers.

Juan Guaido has stated that the opposition will not participate in any dialogue with the Maduro government. Opposition lawmakers say that going back to the negotiating table with the now expired government could weaken their support, fracture their unity and ruin their grassroots efforts.

Are elections the answer?

Although elections are the best option to resolve this crisis, it is crucial to understand that Venezuela does not have the structural framework to immediately hold free and fair elections.

Legitimate elections have not been held in Venezuela since 2015. Maduro has stacked the National Electoral Council (CNE), the Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ), and the fraudulent National Constituent Assembly (ANC), giving him sole control of the election process. These three bodies have also served to imprison, intimidate and ban potential opponents from running.

Although most recent elections have been fraudulent, Maduro’s reelection as president in May 2018 presidential snap vote, deemed illegitimate by the international community, created the presidential vacuum filled by Guaido. Per the constitution, Guaido, now as Interim President, must set a timetable for elections within 30 days of his swearing in on January 23. The international community should help facilitate this process. 

What minimum requirements must be met for elections to be considered free and fair?

  1. There must be an independent electoral body that respects the constitution and upholds Venezuela’s electoral law and existing voting systems.
  2. All candidates must be granted the same opportunities to register and mobilize voters and there must be open space for all media, especially independent outlets, to provide election coverage and promote transparency.
  3. International and domestic observers, along with members from every political party, must be allowed access inside polling stations to ensure the process’ transparency.  
  4. There should be impartial security forces ensuring the safety of voters on election day.

Holding free and fair elections is the only way that the Venezuelan people will have the freedom to determine their own destiny—something Nicolas Maduro has denied them.

The international community should support the Venezuelan people in preparing the framework for free and fair elections, and thus choose a path to recovery and freedom.