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The Crisis in Venezuela Must Not Be Ignored


Ved Nanda is Evans University Professor and director of the Ved Nanda Center for International and Comparative Law. He has taught at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law since 1965. Nanda is past president of the World Jurist Association, former honorary vice president of the American Society of International Law and a member of the advisory council of the United States Institute of Human Rights.

The Venezuelan crisis no longer is front-page news, having been eclipsed by other crises at home and abroad. But the situation there, with its potential for regional instability, must not be ignored. Last month, the UN Human Rights Council severely criticized Venezuela, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights has suggested the possibility that “crimes against humanity may have been committed” there.

The latest regional elections in 23 Venezuelan states on Oct. 15 shocked observers when President Nicolás Maduro’s Socialist Unified Party of Venezuela (PSUV) trounced the opposition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition, winning 18 states. Although the polls showed wide support for the opposition, it won only five states. Two years ago, the opposition had prevailed by a wide majority in elections for the Venezuelan National Assembly.

Irregularity in the electoral process today is widely recognized. Organization of American States Secretary General Luis al Magro, along with a group of 11 Latin American states, Canada, the United States, and several European countries, has expressed concern about the polling. The October elections were not free and fair. The government shifted the locations of several hundred polling stations in the opposition strongholds without much notice. Voters were confused by the presence on the ballots of names of some candidates who had lost in primary contests.

The opposition’s leader, Leopoldo López, has been under house arrest, having spent three prior years in prison. Its presidential candidate in the 2013 election, Henrique Capriles, who lost a close race to Maduro, is under budget-related charges and has been barred from running for office for 15 years.

Many opposition leaders suspected that these elections would be rigged and hence initially wanted to boycott them. While smaller parties in the coalition persisted in that position, the majority reversed and participated.

The opposition had led protests and rallies against the Maduro administration for several months in which scores died. In another election, on July 30, Venezuela had elected a “Constituent Assembly” while the opposition boycotted. It was formed to rewrite the constitution and supersede the existing opposition-controlled legislature.

Last Monday, four of the five new opposition governors took their oaths of office before the leaders of the Constituent Assembly that they had called unconstitutional. Because of this reversal of their position, many of their colleagues in the opposition accused them of betrayal. The opposition now is indeed fractured.

The current situation is grim, with shortages of food and medicine, violence, political uncertainty and instability, and triple-digit inflation. It is only Russian and Chinese aid and loans that keep the Maduro government afloat. The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in the U.S. now may come as a surprise — 22,000 this year, four times the figure two years ago.

A former student of mine from Caracas, Venezuela — Pedro Perera, a dual citizen who has been in Denver since 2010 — commented that for the opposition, “the cycle of elections has come to an end.” The system, he said, is “completely rigged, with the electoral commission and the judicial branch totally dominated by the Maduro regime.”

Young professionals finding no hope and promise in their future in Venezuela are keen to leave the country and find a job in Europe or the United States. The people are fed up with politics and see no way out of the current impasse. The opposition in Venezuela must again come together and convey a clear message to the electorate not simply of opposition to Maduro but an alternative to restore the economy.

The international community must continue its pressure to restore democracy in Venezuela. The U.S. must continue its targeted sanctions, including the new travel ban. The European Union is considering appropriate measures, with France leading the effort. The U.S. should also work through the Organization of American States and with countries such as Brazil and Colombia and the Caribbean nations to continue putting pressure on Venezuela’s authoritarian regime to comply with the OAS’s democratic charter, which obligates states to respect human rights.

This opinion editorial first published in The Denver Post on November 3, 2017.