By Robert Menendez, U.S. senator from New Jersey
I want to express my outrage and horror at the out-of-control electoral situation in Venezuela—at the intimidation, violence, manipulation, and corruption by the Maduro government to manipulate election results in their favor.
For weeks, President Maduro has said that his party will do whatever it takes to stay in power and I have no doubt that he will do everything he can to stay in power. In recent days, Maduro said: “If on December 6th the political-right wins, prepare to see a country in chaos, in violence. I will not turn over nor will I betray the revolution”—A clear statement of what’s to come, but the world is watching.
In October, he gave a public speech in which he said that if the opposition wins, the country would enter into one of its “most turbulent periods” because he will not turn over the revolution and if necessary he would rule through what he called “A civic military union.” Maduro’s cronies have also made alarming, ominous statements in recent weeks warning the public that the ruling party will not lose control. The government has already denied international election observers, so, clearly, we know what’s about to happen.
Maduro’s term is not yet up, but it’s only a matter of time and this election will be a demonstration of his complete failure. The fact is, numbers don’t lie and the crushing poll numbers coming out are further proof the country is ready for fundamental change from a failed economic model that has run its course and needs to be done away with. All of this against a backdrop of continued deceit, repression, and violence.
Last week, in broad daylight, armed supporters of the government assassinated Luiz Manuel Diaz, the state level-head of the Acción Democrática or Democratic Action Party at an open air rally in the State of Guarico—clearly a politically targeted assassination designed to terrorize opposition parties and their supporters. Luiz Manuel Diaz was standing 6 feet away from Lilian Tintori, whom I’ve met several times, the wife of the high profile political prisoner, Leopoldo Lopez.
This level of unacceptable, blatant violence is appalling and has been condemned by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, and by countless human rights organizations. Again the world is clearly watching and demanding that the rule of law in Venezuela be reestablished.
The fact is, the government is engaged in clear election manipulation. The government-controlled National Electoral Council has disqualified seven leading opposition figures from participating in the elections—disqualifications without justification and without a process to appeal. The disqualifications have targeted only members of the opposition: Maria Corina Machado, the diputada (assembly member) that received the single highest number of votes in the 2010 elections; Manuel Rosales, the former governor of Zulia State and a former presidential candidate for the opposition; Leopoldo Lopez, currently being held in a military prison, the most high profile political prisoner in the Americas.
The government has also fabricated a border crisis with neighboring Colombia as a pretext to declare a state of emergency, in 23 municipalities in three states along the Colombian-Venezuelan border. This allows the government to arbitrarily suspend the fundamental rights of citizens in these municipalities to a right to assembly, right to peaceful demonstrations and, guess what, it just so happens that these municipalities are either swing districts, or ones where the opposition won handily in the 2010 legislative elections. In these same three states, the opposition won 18 of the 27 seats contested. The government is even resorting to political tricks.
In one district, in the city of Maracay, the leading opposition candidate is named Ismael Garcia, a lifelong political veteran. The government managed to find a 28-year-old parking attendant named Ismael Garcia, who is running under a party name similar to the opposition candidate, with a logo nearly identical.
In another area in the capital of Caracas, the National Statistics Institute and National Electoral Council have determined that by the end of the year 128,000 voters are scheduled to move out of a district largely supportive of the opposition to a district supportive of the government. This move is large enough to decrease by one the number of deputies that the opposition district will elect, and enough to increase by one the number of deputies that the pro-government district will elect.
The National Statistics Institute and National Electoral Council acknowledge that 134,000 votes will move back to the pro-opposition district by the middle of next year which means 130,000 people are moving for a period of six to nine months.
The Maduro government can’t believe they can hide from these obvious tactics of political tricks to rob the people of Venezuela of their right to a free and fair election. They can’t be so naïve to think that these ridiculous tactics are going unnoticed. We are not blind to it. We’re watching. And I want to send a clear message that makes it clear that the world is watching and waiting for the results of the election and the aftermath.
Against this backdrop of violence, intimidation, corruption, and election fraud, the Venezuelan government has routinely denied the presence of credible international election observers. If the Venezuelan government was interested in guaranteeing the transparency, objectivity and credibility of the elections, it would have invited the OAS—the region’s preeminent multilateral body—to observe the elections.
Since 1989, the OAS has conducted more than 160 election observation missions in 24 countries. The OAS Secretary General has repeatedly offered to observe, but Maduro has turned him down. The EU has also offered to observe—also rejected by the government. Instead, the Venezuelan government has opted for a mission from Union de Naciones Suramericanas, UNASUR, which conducts “electoral accompaniment” rather than “election observation.” The technical rigor of the UNASUR mission has been called into question by many members of the international community. Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court banned Brazil’s participation in the UNASUR mission. Chile and Uruguay also will not participate in the UNASUR mission. As a Washington Post headline put it this week, “Venezuela [is heading] to a pivotal election; without a referee.”
As Venezuela heads into this election, nationwide polls are showing a strong and sustained trend in favor of the opposition. National polling shows opposition candidates leading by 28 points. This growing advantage is the result of an increasingly dire outlook that reflects the state of the nation. The people of Venezuela have and are suffering economic hardship. They’re subjected to increased societal violence. They have seen more and more evidence that senior government officials are personally and deeply involved in drug trafficking, deeply involved in money laundering. In fact, his own family members have been arrested for drug trafficking.
And, to make matters worse, as President Maduro, a former bus driver, has driven his country’s economy off a cliff, there have been shortages of beef and milk, chicken and eggs, rice and pasta; there have been shortages of soap for bathing and diapers for small children. And this trend will likely get worse. This year, the IMF predicts that Venezuela’s GDP will contract by 10 percent: The single largest economic contraction in the world this year. The country is also suffering from the highest levels of inflation in the entire world, more than 150 percent in 2015 according to the IMF, and expected to surpass 200 percent in 2016.
As economic hardship grows, it shouldn’t be a complete surprise that criminality in the country has worsened the murder rate more than doubling over the past decade. According to the Venezuela Violence Observatory, the per capita murder rate in Venezuela was 37 per 100,000 in 2005, 54 per 100,000 in 2010, and 82 per 100,000 in 2014. And, things are even worse in the capital Caracas, where the per capita murder rate is approaching 125 per 100,000 residents. This puts Caracas among the top five most violent cities in the world, and on par with the carnage generally seen only in war zones.
On top of this widespread societal violence, in 2014, the world bore witness to Venezuelan security forces violently deployed on the streets to suppress peaceful protests occurring throughout the country that has left 43 people dead on both sides of the political divide, more than 50 documented cases of torture of opposition activists, and thousands of arrests. Throughout this violence, respected international human rights organization Human Rights Watch found that human rights abuses were a “systematic practice” committed by Venezuelan security forces.
To make matters worse, a darker and more sinister narrative has emerged from Venezuela in 2015. In March of this year, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network—known as FinCEN—announced the Private Bank of Andorra is a “foreign financial institution of primary money laundering concern.” Among other concerns, FinCEN found that the bank had been involved in a scheme that siphoned off roughly $2 billion from Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, a scheme that surely included widespread involvement and knowledge of Venezuelan government officials. The world is watching.
In May of this year, in a Wall Street Journal exclusive, the world was informed that the Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and several federal prosecutors’ offices are investigating Diosdado Cabello for involvement in drug trafficking, a man who serves as the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly and someone generally regarded as the second most powerful figure in the government’s coalition. And now he’s apparently wanted for turning Venezuela into a global cocaine hub.
And in October, in another incredibly well-documented piece, the Wall Street Journal revealed how money laundering and embezzlement inside Venezuelan state oil giant Venezuela was directed from the highest levels, including by former PDVSA President Rafael Ramirez. These two incidents are part of a long and troubling series of disturbing revelations about how the highest levels of the power are directly responsible for the Venezuelan state becoming penetrated by drug trafficking and criminality.
With such sinister trends becoming commonplace in Venezuela, it is important to recognize that a sea change of opinion is taking place in Latin America, and increasingly key political leaders are speaking out forcefully against what they’re seeing in Venezuela.
In September of this year 34 former presidents and heads of state from across Latin America and the Caribbean met in Bogotá and issued a declaration calling for international election observation, greater safeguards for Venezuelan voters, and the release of political prisoners in the country.
Last month, the Secretary General of the OAS Luis Almagro released a scathing letter to the head of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council laying out all of his concerns with the process running up to the December 6 elections, and calling for an immediate course correction.
Also, last month, I was proud to join with 17 of my colleagues here in the U.S. Senate, 32 Brazilian Senators, 57 Colombian Senators, 12 Chilean Senators, 26 Costa Rica Assembly Members, and 13 Peruvian Members of Congress—more than 150 legislators from across the Americas—in an unprecedented showing of unity to call for election observation, speak out against the disqualification of opposition candidates, and call for the release of political prisoners. And just last week, it was important to see Argentina’s president-elect Mauricio Macri calling for the South American trade block Mercosur to review whether Venezuela should be suspended from the block for violating its democracy clause and failing to uphold human rights.
The question then remains, what can we do? What can the United States do? As elections are held in Venezuela this weekend, it is imperative that we all remain clear eyed about the challenges at hand in the country. For 15 years, we have watched as President Maduro and former President Chavez have systematically dismantled democracy in the country. They’ve removed checks on the executive. They’ve corrupted the judiciary and the rule of law. They’ve usurped the powers of the legislature. They’ve politicized the military. And they’ve suppressed freedom of the press.
No one should be surprised that 15 years of democratic deterioration has led to economic ruin, to rampant criminality, and to an increasingly dangerous political polarization. But the first step to correct course and help Venezuelans back from the brink of being a failed state is the exercise, this weekend, of that most fundamental democratic right with a huge voter turnout that could help move the country back toward democracy and the rule of law.
We should take note that Latin America is speaking out forcefully about the situation in Venezuela, but we in the U.S. should be preparing our own response. Last week, the Washington Post Editorial Board noted that should the vote be disrupted in Venezuela, the “U.S. should be ready to respond with censure and sanctions.” I couldn’t agree more.
In December of 2014, the U.S. Congress, with the unanimous consent of both chambers, approved the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act—legislation which I authored and introduced with Senators Nelson, Rubio, Kirk and McCain. This bi-partisan bill called for mandatory sanctions against violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms and provided the Administration with the authorities it needs. The Administration has used these sanctions once, but we should be prepared, if necessary, to use them again.
We know what’s happening in Venezuela: Subversion of democracy through state-sponsored violence; repression; hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans in the streets earlier this year protesting alarming levels of violence and crime; sky-high inflation rates; the scarcity of food and basic consumer goods. That, is today’s Venezuela. The question is: Can we make tomorrow better for the people of Venezuela?
The world watched as President Maduro and his government responded to protests with a brutal display of force not seen in our hemisphere in over a decade. The results: More than 40 deaths, more than 50 documented cases of torture, and thousands of unlawful detentions. In May, Human Rights Watch released a devastating report that said: Venezuelan human rights violations “were part of a systematic practice by Venezuelan security forces” and that these abuses were intended to “punish people for their political views.”
As I have said repeatedly, and as is the case today, not one Venezuelan government official or member of the security forces has been held accountable for their role in beating, shooting, jailing or torturing peaceful protesters—NOT ONE. Now, they threaten to highjack the electoral process and they must know that the world is watching and that there will be consequences to their actions.
Disclaimer: We selected this Op-Ed to be published in our opinion section as a contribution to public debate. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of its author(s) and/or the organization(s) they represent and do not reflect the views or the editorial line of Univision Noticias.