Venezuela is in the midst of a dramatic economic, social and political crisis, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The mismanagement of the country by the Maduro government, which EU member states do not recognise as legitimate, and the effect of economic sanctions, have resulted in hyperinflation and a severe scarcity of essential goods in a potentially rich, oil-producing country. It hampers the lives of a large part of the population, making Venezuela one of the countries most affected globally by food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme. Up to 70% of school-aged children are not attending school regularly and around 82% of the population do not have regular access to water. The country has seen several large outbreaks of infectious diseases and homicide rates are among the highest in the world.
More than 5 million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2015 towards other Latin American countries and Spain. This mass exodus has resulted in the lack of qualified personnel, for instance of over 200,000 teachers. The situation in border areas, with the presence of armed groups and criminal gangs, is of particular concern. During my recent trip to Peru and Brazil, I had the opportunity to listen to testimonies of some Venezuelan refugees about what they have endured in the country and I got a better idea on how much the continuing Venezuelan crisis affects the whole region.
In this context, working closely with the International Contact Group, the EU has been engaged for two years in helping to find a political solution to the crisis. I have been personally actively involved in these efforts, for which I have often been criticised from both sides. While they have so far not yet delivered the intended results, we have to continue helping find a way out of the Venezuelan crisis, which can only come from the Venezuelan people themselves through political negotiations as the ones that were taking place in Mexico recently.
An important new step in this direction was the decision to send an EU Electoral Observation Mission (EOM) to observe the recent regional and municipal elections for the first time in 15 years. We did not send an EOM to observe last year’s legislative elections because the necessary conditions were not met. This time we accepted the demand from the Venezuelan National Electoral Council to send an EOM, once we got confirmation of the participation of the main opposition parties, which meant that these elections would be more inclusive than the previous ones to which the opposition did not participate. The renewed composition of the Electoral Council was also widely seen in Venezuela as the most balanced of the last 20 years. In addition, before taking the decision to deploy the EOM, the European External Action Service negotiated with the Venezuela authorities an administrative agreement, guaranteeing the possibility for the EU to observe the electoral process freely and in full respect of our strict observation methodology. This agreement was respected. It was however a controversial decision: some saw it as a way to legitimise the Maduro regime and to whitewash the electoral process, for other, an interference in internal affairs of Venezuela.
An EOM is a complex organisation that requires much time and many resources to work properly. It was composed by almost 140 persons, under the responsibility of the Chief Observer, Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Isabel Santos, accompanied by the Head of the European Parliament delegation Jordi Cañas. An EU EOM is always a strictly independent operation and its Chief Observer is in charge to protect this independence. The EOM experts were in the country well ahead of election day and remain to complete their final report, which will be made public in the coming weeks. This has nothing to do with the symbolic presence of a few personalities on the election day, lacking the capacity to assess the whole electoral process in the whole country.
On 21 November, the regional and local elections were held to choose 23 governors, 335 mayors and more than 2,700 state legislative and municipal councillors. Unsurprisingly, given the high degree of disaffection of the population, the turnout was only of 42.5% of Venezuelans casting a vote, the lowest in the last 25 years. The fact that some 6 million people, one in seven Venezuelans, have left the country has however also affected this turnout.
According to the Venezuelan National Electoral Council, the pro-Maduro government political forces won 20 governors out of 23 and 212 mayors out of 335, although a majority of votes went to non-pro government options. The fragmentation of the opposition has limited its ability to capitalise on these votes. With 59 mayors, the opposition grouped in the unity platform has however doubled its number of mayors compared to the 2017 elections, despite the unfavourable political conditions that the EU EOM pointed out in its preliminary statement of findings.
In this statement, presented last Tuesday, Isabel Santos and Jordi Cañas, recognised that the EOM had found some concrete improvements in the electoral process compared with recent ones. But they also stressed that major structural problems remained: lack of judicial independence and non-adherence to the rule of law; use of state resources for political campaigning; a number of arbitrary political disqualification of candidates; lack of media independence. All of that affected the level-playing field and the fairness and transparency of the elections.
At the press conference, journalists repeatedly asked if the elections were free and fair. This suggests a certain misunderstanding of the role of international election observation missions of which the EU has long experience: we are not “election cops”. We were not there to legitimise or de-legitimise an election and to declare whether it was free and fair. The EU EOMs are designed to provide objective findings on how an electoral process is run, based on international democratic norms that the country has signed up to. And it forms the basis of a set of recommendations that can help improving future electoral processes.
Although Nicolas Maduro has declared recently that the EU EOM members were “spies” who had come to discredit the elections, the fact that the mission was well-received by a vast majority of Venezuelans on the ground and that they responded positively to its preliminary statement, suggests that the decision to go and observe was the right one. It was useful for the Venezuelan people and allows the EU and the international community to better assess the facts in the country.
However, the most important contribution of this mission will be its final recommendations for future elections, which will be shared in early 2022. How to organise free and fair elections is indeed one of the key issues for any politically negotiated solution to the Venezuelan crisis. In any case, the EU will continue its efforts in helping bringing about reconciliation and “re-institutionalisation” in Venezuela to alleviate the pain suffered by the Venezuelans.