A year ago, in October 2016, many of us—myself included—warned of an attempted coup by Nicolas Maduro’s regime. And while the Venezuelan dictator likes to denounce the coup d’états as an outside plot, the coup has actually come from within his own administration. During this last year, the Maduro administration, its allies in the military, the judiciary and the electoral council have circled the wagons and closed off any possibility for political transition to take place in Venezuela.
The coup—or “Madurazo”—was fully evident during the gubernatorial elections on October 15. The move to convene the was orchestrated by the unified government, which further undermined the opposition’s powers (whose strategies will be deeply reviewed) and in what was a fait accompli consolidated the power of the government over the state. What’s worse, with this recent coup, it is not impossible to imagine presidential elections in advance of 2018 with Maduro as a candidate demanding re-election, looking to hold an extra 6-year presidential term. No one—probably not even Maduro himself—could have imagined this a year ago.
So what did we see a year ago that made many of us see this coming? After the decade’s most crowded mass street demonstration on September 1st, 2016, in Caracas, there remained only two electoral possibilities: a referendum to oust Nicolás Maduro from office (a mechanism established in the Venezuelan Constitution) or gubernatorial elections.
By demonstrating control over the Justice system and the Electoral Board (CNE), Maduro’s regime closed down the first electoral alternative and indefinitely postponed the second. No referendum was held, nor were State Governor elections convened. Maduro ignored the people’s will in a clear self coup d’état.
How can we be so sure? The first red flag was when the opposition gained a majority in the national assembly in the December 2015 elections. Shortly thereafter, the executive branch immediately established an important alliance with the Supreme Court to withdraw the National Assembly’s power.
A possible silver lining of this October election is that chavismo clearly demonstrated the path that they plan to continue to follow. They wiped out any electoral solution (by manipulating and underestimating the people’s vote), taking advantage of deep crisis and popular discontent against chavismo. But, believing they could win, they opened it back up, and by doing so distracted the international community.
Continuing to avoid elections would have a high cost for the regime. But by having them on the government’s own terms, it allowed the regime to delay, distract and play to the the international community’s demands for an electoral solution. But the international community never bothered to demand to have the elections observed by professional international monitors, nor articulate any consequences should the government fail to hold transparent and fair elections. But now the elections are over, and the government, having secured a victory, has the ball in its court. Meanwhile, the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), holds the burden of proof of demonstrating electoral fraud in October’s elections without a credible international arbiter.
It will not be easy, given the opposition’s participation in the process, but some elements of fraud can be drawn from the regime’s unfair pre-electoral advantage and the National Electoral Council’s opacity the day before the elections. In addition, the clear discrepancies between voter turnout and results from past elections also lend themselves as evidence to charges of vote count manipulation.
But yet again, the international community missed a chance to increase pressure on the Maduro government for an electoral outcome. It could have demanded that the government accept credible observers. It could have threatened not to recognize the outcome of the elections and impose sanctions if the Maduro government followed through with them. Instead, the international community–mainly the United States, Canada and now possibly the European Union— has only sanctioned top Venezuelan officials, which has failed to generate anything, not even a break within the regime.
The international community missed a moment to tie its sanctions policy to a specific democratic moment and, once again, failed to effectively stand up to the Maduro regime.