After so many years of the brutal and criminal dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro, there is a possible path to democracy for Venezuela. What is it? Free and internationally supervised elections in 2024. But the path has many land mines.
Since Maduro was appointed president after the death of the coup-plotting, authoritarian and all-powerful Hugo Chavez in March 2013, thousands of opponents have been murdered, tortured and jailed. They are “crimes against humanity,” according to a United Nations report last year. Maduro, “supported by other high-level authorities, stand out as the main architects in the design, implementation and maintenance of a machinery with the purpose of repressing dissent,” the report said.
The opposition has done everything possible to remove the Maduro dictatorship – from mass marches and protests over many years to demands for international sanctions and the establishment of a new government – but nothing has worked. The reason is simple: the regime, with its absolute control of the military and security forces, has wielded unusual levels of violence to crush any attempt at rebellion. To topple a dictatorship by force, with the support of dissident military members, is no longer an option. The sacrifices of thousands of Venezuelan families has been supreme, and they can no longer risk more lives.
And so in the end, it was the valiant pressure from the political opposition within Venezuela and the international sanctions which forced Maduro to bow and send his representatives to the negotiating table in Mexico City. That’s where a few days ago negotiators for the dictatorship and the opposition – under the so-called Unitary Democratic Platform – agreed to request an end to the sanctions and the release of $3 billion in Venezuelan government funds now blocked in international markets. The money would be used for social programs in Venezuela, a country with one of the worst national administrations and the highest inflation in the world.
Soon after that, the U.S. government authorized the oil company Chevron to operate again in Venezuela. An improvement in the Venezuelan economy and the eventual establishment of a democratic system is good for the United States, which is the principal destination of the more than 7 million Venezuelan refugees spread around the world. Aside from reopening the U.S. market to Venezuelan oil, the U.S. government also exchanged two nephews of Maduro’s wife, Celia Flores, accused of drug trafficking, for seven U.S. citizens jailed in Venezuela.
This all had to happen before it becomes possible to remove Maduro from power through elections in 2024. “That is our demand,” Juan Guaidó told me in an interview. He claims he is recognized as the legitimate president of Venezuela by “dozens” of countries, including the United States. “We are not begging. We’re not asking for a favor. We are fighting for our rights. We know we’re in a dictatorship.”
The model to follow in Venezuela is the one Nicaragua saw in 1990, when the Sandinistas lost elections against a coalition led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, or in Chile in 1988, when a referendum forced dictator Augusto Pinochet out of power.
Venezuela could push Maduro out of the Miraflores presidential palace with their votes. But his government cannot be allowed to organize the elections or count the votes. That already happened in the 2013 and 2018 elections, both marked by allegations of fraud. It’s necessary therefore that the 2024 presidential elections be supervised by international organizations. Even then, it would be very difficult to prevent the dictatorship from using public resources to favor the reelection of Maduro. It is not a perfect solution. It can be full of dangers and tricks, but it is the only ray of hope peeking out of the dark and long Bolivarian tyranny.
Maduro, who is very vulnerable because of the economic crisis and the escape of millions of migrants facing his country after the pandemic, said recently that he would agree to elections but with conditions. “They want free elections? Fair and transparent?” the dictator asked. And this was his reply: “Elections free of sanctions, free of unilateral coercive measures. Remove them all.”
It is obvious that the international sanctions have pommeled the Venezuelan regime and forced it to the negotiating table. This is the time the opposition has been waiting for nearly 20 years. But all the factions must unite behind a single presidential candidate. To do that, the Unitarian Democratic Platform is planning a primary election in 2023.
Could Juan Guaido be that one opposition candidate? “Our unity today in Venezuela is above any kind of personal aspiration,” he told me before showing me a poster with the number 398 – the number of days he believes Maduro has left in power. He updates it every day. “My duty is to achieve a free election.”
We will see who the opposition candidate might be. But for now, what’s important is that there is a possible, although distant, path to democracy in Venezuela. Yes, it sounds almost impossible. But all tyrants fall, and Maduro will fall.
Anyone have any other ideas?