Last weekend’s legislative elections proved to be “by no means fair or credible,” says USIP’s Steve Hege. To get the country back on track, Hege says a new U.S. administration will “have to work with the opposition and generate within the Venezuelan people some degree of belief in electoral politics.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: Venezuela, there are some issues that are taking place, Colombia and Venezuela. Right now, there are problems in Venezuela, especially with the vulnerabilities of the COVID-19 crisis. They have threatened to neighboring Colombia with whom it shares a rather lengthy border, 1400 miles or so. And there are also some questions about election viability. We've heard that issue before in some other places. I'm not sure where, anyway, let's get the latest on this. Steve Hege with us, a senior expert on Colombia’s peace process at the United States Institute of Peace. He is tweeting @stevehege. Steve, welcome back. Thanks for being here today.

Steve Hege: Thanks so much for having me, Tim.

Tim Farley: Update, the legislative elections in Venezuela, this seems to be clouded in controversy right now. Tell us about it.

Steve Hege: Yeah, exactly. I think it's important to point out why were these legislative elections critical. Now, for the last two years or so, the current National Assembly has claimed that the 2018 presidential election results were not credible or valid. And so, therefore, they asserted their constitutional right to exercise claims on executive authority. So, they created an interim government, which was supported by more than 60 countries internationally. But it was largely that credibility and legitimacy was based upon their leadership with the current National Assembly. Now, the five-year term of that National Assembly was set to expire and will expire on January 5 of next year. So, these elections are really critical to sort of create continuity of that claim as the National Assembly of true executive authority in competition with the de facto president of Nicolás Maduro. There were some political negotiations over the course of this year, which tried to create better and fairer electoral conditions for these legislative elections. Unfortunately, those political negotiations broke down for a number of reasons, including the fact that a mercenary invasion, orchestrated by that same interim government, led by the National Assembly largely failed. 

Several months ago, there have been rifts between the European Union and United States about support for those political negotiations to help the opposition and then our current National Assembly participate in these legislative elections. So after those failed, essentially, the regime proceeded forward with conditions that were by no means fair or credible. Many of the main political parties of the opposition, currently leading the National Assembly had their leadership hijacked, the National Electoral Council was unilaterally named by the regime. And so essentially, this was a move to put that National Assembly, the current one and their claims on legitimacy internationally, in some degree of limbo and undermine their legitimacy.

And overall, the elections on Sunday, were not necessarily fraudulent or rigged in the sense of the outcomes were orchestrated, or tank tampered with. Essentially, the conditions were not fair by any stretch of the imagination, and everyone really lost around the board, the regime lost, they couldn't create a credible process. There's a large abstention, 70% of the electorate did not vote, the opposition party that did attempt to vote under great criticism, they only gained around 18% of the vote. And so therefore, their efforts to try to participate are further undermined. And the opposition, essentially that National Assembly, now has lost this has been the culmination of these elections were representative of the culmination of the failure of their last two years of claiming this interim government status and executive authority that's essentially come to an end.

Tim Farley: So this opposition group, which I guess is the one associated with Juan Guaidó, and the current regime, if I can use the word or at least the administration of President Nicolás Maduro, both, according to the Associated Press, are waiting to see what happens in Washington, as President-elect Joe Biden takes office next month, while Biden has referred to Maduro as a dictator, he and aides have made few detailed statements about how they will approach the crisis in Venezuela. Is there a recommended course of action for the U.S., either under President Trump or President Biden and the incoming administration on what to do?

Steve Hege: I think any incoming or future administration on the U.S. side certainly is going to have enormous influence given the role that is played in supporting the current administration, support of the interim government, as you said, led by the current National Assembly president, Juan Guaidó. There's likely going to be an effort to continue to recognize that current National Assembly as continuing to be the legitimate leaders of the Venezuelan opposition. Right now, that opposition is undertaking a virtual electronic consultation about their future. That's going to culminate this Saturday in a call for street protests. Their goal is to at least try to get out the roughly 5 million Venezuelans who participated on Sunday in the elections. This shows at least some degree of parity, although that's going to be tough.

I think in general, a future U.S. administration is going to have to work with that opposition and to generate within the Venezuelan people some degree of belief in electoral politics, some degree of belief in the Venezuelan political class, because that abstention, that 70% abstention, from this Sunday was not only reflective of the lack of free and fair conditions for participation in the elections, it was also, I think, a general broad sort of disillusionment with the ability of the Venezuelan political class to deliver on the things that are most urgent for the Venezuelan people.

And those are essentially sort of survival-mode concerns in the midst of the biggest, largest humanitarian crisis and economic collapse in the history of the Western Hemisphere. and on top of that, as you mentioned at the outset, the COVID crisis and the public health concerns. So a new administration is going to have to deal with trying to generate new thinking, that's going to have to start in our view, from the perspective of the U.S. Institute of Peace, with a broader participation in mechanisms for political decision making, and that means civil society, private sector leaders, religious leaders, unions, potentially the opposition is going have to take a backseat, initially to those leadership's as they try to create more conducive conditions for inevitable political negotiations to restart in some sort of national dialogue, which is beyond the institutions of the country right now. All the institutions will have been co-opted or controlled by the regime, as you said.

Tim Farley: Both Venezuela and neighboring Colombia have been hit hard by coronavirus, correct?

Steve Hege: Absolutely, I think, you know, it's tough to say the extent to which the pandemic has hit Venezuela, the statistics are not necessarily as reliable, but certainly where I'm sitting here in Bogota in Colombia, the country has been one of the most affected in the hemisphere. Certainly, some degree of public health cooperation between the two countries, given the mass migration back and forth of Venezuelans. We've seen Venezuelan migrants in Colombia returned to Venezuela at the outset of the pandemic and now many of those, those same migrants are coming back to Colombia. So, it is a major challenge between the two countries in addition to significant insecurity along that really porous border that you mentioned at the outset.

Tim Farley: Steve, as always, I appreciate you spending time with us on POTUS. Thanks so much for being here today.

Steve Hege: Great, thanks a lot. Thanks for having me.

Tim Farley: Steve Hege, senior expert at the Columbia peace process at the United States Institute of Peace, the challenges ahead for Venezuela and Colombia and what this incoming administration will have to face as they come into town and into power. He is tweeting @stevehege.

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