With a Soviet-style election, Nicolás Maduro tightens his grip on Venezuela

President Nicolás Maduro shows his ballot during elections to choose members of the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday. (Ariana Cubillos/AP)
President Nicolás Maduro shows his ballot during elections to choose members of the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday. (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

On Sunday, many Venezuelans turned up at polling places, had their names checked against voter rolls and were then ushered to a private area, where they could choose among candidates and parties on a ballot. Nicolás Maduro’s impoverished regime devoted considerable resources to giving the exercise the look and feel of a legislative election. Few were fooled.

The elaborate sham, with the look and feel of an election, was no such thing.

Global headlines underlined that the opposition had boycotted the vote, but this isn’t quite right. Through its wholly subservient Supreme Court, the regime had secured a series of court victories giving regime supporters control of the main opposition parties’ spots on the ballot.

Imagine that the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Sean Hannity and Rudolph W. Giuliani would be allowed to decide which candidates the Democratic Party would nominate for Congress. Imagine they went on to choose large numbers of Trump supporters to run as Democrats, alongside a handful of the most conservative actual Democrats they could find. That’s the kind of election Venezuela held: You pick any type of politician, so long as they are pro-regime.

Then again, dictatorships have held this kind of faux elections for decades. On June 12, 1966, nearly every Soviet voter chose candidates aligned with the Communist Party. Every five years, the same charade was repeated, with the victims of the Soviet regime being allowed to choose from slates of one. In Cuba, the same cruel tradition brings people out on the streets every five years. No one mistakes these pantomimes for real elections.

What’s sad is that Venezuelan elections have not always been run on the Soviet model. As recently as 2015, Venezuela held a hard-fought, competitive election for control of the National Assembly, our unicameral legislature. The opposition won a resounding victory, ending up with a two-thirds supermajority in the chamber — enough even to amend the constitution.

Within days of losing that election, the Maduro regime set out a strategy to effectively annul it. In a series of strained court decisions, the regime had its Supreme Court declare that the new opposition-led National Assembly was allowed to sit, but could neither pass laws nor exercise oversight functions over the government. Its only power would be to make speeches. In time, even that would be taken away.

From that point on, Venezuela’s descent from “hybrid regime” or “competitive authoritarianism” into downright military dictatorship was swift. Police death squads have murdered thousands of people in recent years, particularly young men in poor areas. International human rights groups began to compile thick files substantiating reports of torture, arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial executions. Opposition political figures have been harassed, beaten, jailed and forced into exile in ever-growing numbers.

In 2019, what remained of Venezuela’s opposition-led legislature designated its president, Juan Guaidó, as the legitimate president of the country. It was an act of desperation — a constitutional Hail Mary pass. With support from foreign governments, the Trump administration first among them, Guaidó hoped to turn enough army officers against the regime to destabilize it.

That gambit failed. Its failure has left the opposition at a loss. With all institutional avenues for contesting the regime’s power closed and the regime adopting KGB-style tactics to stay in power, talk of transitions and political negotiations ring increasingly hollow.

Now the awful truth is that beginning in January, Maduro will have his own fully controlled legislature in place. Once that happens, Guaidó’s already threadbare claim on power will look entirely absurd. The opposition’s protestations have long been barren, and with each passing day they look worse than that — simply divorced from reality.

Today, Maduro’s dictatorship is thoroughly consolidated. Our moral revulsion at this fact does nothing to make it less of a fact. Having spent all of my adult life fighting any way I could find against the imposition of dictatorship in Venezuela, it hurts almost physically to write this. But facts are facts, and little good can come from denying them.

President-elect Joe Biden would do well to build a Venezuela policy based on a cold assessment of this intolerable fact, and not on the self-defeating fantasies the Trump administration has put at the center of its approach.

Francisco Toro is a Venezuelan political commentator and contributing columnist for Global Opinions. He is chief content officer of the Group of 50.

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