Venezuela’s Presidency in Jeopardy

While the region is overwhelmed with waves of migrants and refugees fleeing Venezuela, a decisive event awaits just around the corner. According to the Venezuelan constitution, a new presidential period starts on January 10, 2019. However, the presidential elections held earlier this year were not only unfree and unfair, but they were also considered non-existent by the National Assembly. More than 50 countries did not recognize the results of the elections, leaving open the possibility that Nicolas Maduro will not be recognized as president of Venezuela by these countries post-January 10. In the face of such uncertainty, how will the international community choose to respond, and what are the implications of these decisions moving forward?

How the world stands after the presidential elections held on May 20, 2018.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis has continued to worsen. About 2.5 million people have fled Venezuela in the last three years, and many more are expected to do so as the country’s economy continues to implode. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the country will reach 10 million percent inflation in 2019. The Venezuelan government continues to reject humanitarian aid from abroad. Political repression has intensified, and according to Foro Penal, more than 237 political prisoners currently being held illegally in Venezuela.

In one case, lawmaker and member of the National Assembly Juan Requesens was taken hostage in the middle of the night in his house by the SEBIN, Venezuela’s national intelligence and police agency. This seizure was done without a legal warrant and was a violation of his parliamentary immunity. Fernando Alban, a Caracas councilman and political dissident, was arrested after returning from a trip to the recent UN General Assembly held in New York. He died three days later while in SEBIN’s custody. Despite the government’s account that Alban committed suicide by jumping out of SEBIN’s top-floor building, there is evidence that Alban was tortured as his lungs were filled with water. Furthermore, the national investigation coordinator of the morgue that received Alban’s body in Caracas confessed to having the autopsy’s results altered due to pressure from a top official.

In response to Venezuela’s government criminal activities, which includes narco-trafficking, the United States and other countries have sanctioned more than 70 high-level Venezuelan government officials and military members, including Nicolas Maduro and Delcy Rodriguez, the vice president. However, Maduro and his inner circle continue to hold onto power at the expense of the Venezuelan people’s well-being. At a CSIS Americas event earlier this month, Ambassador William Brownfield, former assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, called Venezuela “not only a narco state, but a mafia state.”

A Tale of Two Governments

Venezuela’s legitimacy problem is exemplified by its parallel institutions. The country has two supreme courts—one in Caracas, whose members were appointed by Maduro, and another in exile, which was appointed by the legitimate National Assembly. The court in exile (called the Legitimate Supreme Tribunal of Justice, or TSJ in Spanish), which convenes in Colombia’s parliament building, has ruled that Maduro should be barred from executive office. It also has ordered that an international arrest warrant should be issued for him on charges of money laundering and corruption. The National Assembly and the Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro supported the verdict and encouraged universal recognition of the TSJ’s ruling. Unsurprisingly, Maduro’s government chose not to recognize this or any ruling from the TSJ, which effectively rules out any mechanism the opposition may have to check the power of the Maduro government.

After the opposition parties gained control of the National Assembly in 2016, the Maduro government responded by forming the illegitimate Constituent National Assembly (ANC). Last year, 545 pro-regime constituents were elected to the ANC by a vote that has been universally denounced as undemocratic. The ANC has de facto —but not de jure—replaced the legitimate National Assembly. Directed by Nicolas Maduro and his inner circle, the ANC’s objective is not merely to rewrite the constitution, but also to formally establish a communal political system with absolute power, not unlike that in Cuba. Despite non-recognition by the international community, the ANC has continued to fire authorities, dismantle institutions like the National Assembly, enact new laws and codes, and modify election cycles.

Venezuela also has two chief prosecutors. In August 2017, Luisa Ortega Diaz, a loyalist to former president Chavez, was sacked by Maduro’s ANC after serving 10 years as the country’s chief prosecutor. Acting from exile abroad, Ortega led a series of investigations of Maduro and other government officials for human right violations and corruption. Ortega’s supporting evidence, submitted to the International Criminal Court (ICC), includes claims of massive corruption and over 8,000 extrajudicial killings by government security forces since 2015. Despite the fact that Venezuela ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, Tarek William Saab, the de facto chief prosecutor appointed by the ANC, denies all allegations coming from abroad. Nevertheless, international pressure continues to grow, especially after the OAS and a panel of independent international experts released a report earlier this year delineating the possible crimes against humanity committed in Venezuela. Following the report, six South American countries, Canada, and France have urged the ICC to investigate Venezuela for alleged crimes against humanity. Other countries, such as Germany, may follow.

Maduro’s Legitimacy in Jeopardy

A president’s legitimacy can be gauged through the origin of his power in addition to the way in which he exercises his power. While Maduro’s legitimacy of origin was challenged over accusations of fraud in the 2013 presidential elections, it remained intact internationally. Maduro’s presence in the UN General Assembly this past September proved it. In contrast, Maduro’s legitimacy of exercise has constantly been challenged over the past six years due to human right violations, corruption, and other illicit activities. However, after this year’s illegitimate presidential elections, both Maduro’s legitimacy of origin and exercise are in jeopardy.

A concerted attempt by the international community to force Maduro from office by challenging his legitimacy may help Venezuelans get their country back.

Venezuela’s most recent presidential elections on May 20 of this year had the lowest participation in the country’s electoral history. Considered non-existent by the National Assembly, the elections were characterized by major challenges to the legitimacy of electoral actors and procedures, as well as claims of voter suppression. Believing that Venezuela's democracy cannot be restored by electoral means at this juncture, the majority of the opposition parties boycotted the elections. Nonetheless, through unfair and nontransparent procedures, the official National Electoral Council announced Maduro as the winner and president-elect.

What Can the International Community Do Post-January 10?

If the international community chooses to challenge Maduro’s right to continue in office after January 10, it has options. Among other things, it should:

  1. suspend the accreditation of Venezuela’s current ambassadors and send them home;
  2. recognize the legitimacy of the elected National Assembly and the Supreme Court in exile;
  3. recognize the previous rulings of the Supreme Court in exile;
  4. prohibit any further international agreements with the Maduro regime; and
  5. refuse visas to members of the Venezuelan regime and, in the event of illicit activities, prepare for detention and prosecution.

Doing nothing has tremendous consequences for Venezuela and the region. While electoral malpractice in Venezuela has eroded confidence in the authorities, spurring outbreaks of violence, the results have always favored Maduro and his inner circle. After two decades of political battle, the Venezuelan people are burnt out or in exile. A concerted attempt by the international community to force Maduro from office by challenging his legitimacy may help Venezuelans get their country back.

Moises Rendon is an associate fellow and associate director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Moises Rendon

Moises Rendon

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program