Last Sunday, as police forces gunned down 16 student protesters, a few thousand public servants threatened explicitly with dismissal heeded the regime’s warnings and voted in the country’s Constituent Assembly elections. An economy in shambles and the brutality that the Nicolás Maduro regime has unleashed, causing close to 120 deaths over the last 100 days of street protests, led an estimated 16 million Venezuelans — around 88 percent of the total voting population — to stay home on Election Day. The opposition-controlled National Assembly, as well as the international community, had called for a boycott of the vote.
Yet, somehow, Tibisay Lucena, president of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, announced that over 8.1 million citizens turned out to vote in favor of Maduro’s controversial initiative.
She was lying — that much is clear. Election Day brought a slew of photos showing empty polling stations throughout the country, making it obvious that very few citizens came out to vote. The media were banned from filming, and carrying out interviews, at polling places, and no credible international observers cared to lend legitimacy to Maduro’s farce.
Lucena’s suggestion that more Hugo Chávez supporters turned out to vote on Sunday than when they reelected Chávez in 2012 suggests overt fraud and shameless cooking of the numbers.
In response, Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, who is charged with policing the organization’s Inter-American Democratic Charter, released a video on Monday “absolutely rejecting the fraudulent results announced by an electoral institution that has lost every last bit of legitimacy, and, instead of respecting the popular vote, has once again proven to be functional to the dictatorship.”
Venezuela has not had a free and fair election since 1999, when Venezuelans fed up with the corruption of the political establishment elected Hugo Chávez. In the 18 years since then, many elections have taken place, but they were neither free or fair. As early as 2003, the Chávez regime started taking reprisals against individuals who voted against the government. By 2007, nearly all critical media had come under the control of the regime, preventing fair access to television in the lead-up to elections. In 2004, Chávez stacked the Supreme Court with loyal judges, and since then most major opposition candidates have been arbitrarily disqualified or otherwise removed from office, imprisoned, or forced into exile.
But never before now had the regime dared to lie so transparently about the outcome of an election. Its decision to do so is a direct indication of the regime’s bold mindset as it nears either its abrupt end or the beginning of a long and painful totalitarian rule. Only a day after the vote, Maduro’s political police raided the homes of opposition leader Leopoldo López and former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, dragged them into the street while still in their pajamas, and forced them into vehicles belonging to the intelligence service. They were reportedly beaten and transferred from house arrest to the Ramo Verde Military Prison, where López had already spent three and a half years.
Maduro’s preference for bullets over ballots became evident in 2016, when his regime blocked every single law proposed by a democratically elected legislature and stopped a constitutional recall referendum rightfully convened by the National Assembly, which would have removed the unpopular Maduro from power, through the ballot box.
At Maduro’s request, Lucena canceled the referendum, arguing that four months of anticipation did not provide enough time to verify signatures and prepare all the requisite paperwork for the vote. By contrast, it took her a couple of hours to approve Maduro’s proposal for a Constituent Assembly and to praise the move as something that would “consolidate the republic and bring peace to the country.”
In 2015, with Venezuela facing unprecedented shortages of food and medicine, the democratic opposition had won a stunning victory and gained a supermajority in the National Assembly. Even more remarkably, Maduro and Lucena’s electoral commission both acknowledged the opposition’s victory.
In normal democratic circumstances, the takeover of the legislative branch by the opposition would have allowed the new legislators to change the course of Maduro’s disastrous economic policy, and allowed the country to put a halt to 16 years of abusive rule by a single party. But rather than allowing for a democratic transition, Maduro doubled down. Using his judges, he implemented a series of measures that rendered the legislature powerless. Backed by the military, Maduro’s government shut down any chance of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
With last Sunday’s vote, Maduro has taken the first step to formally disband the National Assembly and to do away with any prospects of future electoral competition.
It is likely that the new assembly, which includes Maduro’s wife as well as Diosdado Cabello (widely considered the No. 2 man, behind Maduro, of chavismo), will attempt to write a constitution like the one the Castro regime imposed on the Cuban people in 1976, putting all branches of government under the control of one party. The new constitution will also likely enumerate rights and liberties, even as it includes a provision similar to the one in Article 62 of the Cuban constitution warning that “none of the freedoms which are recognized for citizens can be exercised contrary to . . . the existence and objectives of the socialist State, or contrary to the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism” — canceling any real opportunity for a constitutional government.
The brutality of the repression and the establishment of Maduro’s illegal assembly have led key players within the regime to call out Maduro as a dictator. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, an important fixture among Chávez loyalists, broke ranks when Maduro and Lucena announced the July 30 vote, and has since issued indictments against government officials for “grave and systematic human-rights violations.” Orders by Ortega Díaz have gone unenforced, because the military — which enjoys a majority of seats in Maduro’s cabinet — still supports Maduro’s regime.
The democratic governments of Canada, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru, as well as the European Parliament, have denounced Maduro’s Constituent Assembly as an antidemocratic point of no return, and have called for free and fair presidential elections to take place as soon as possible.
Many of them have echoed the view of OAS secretary general Luis Almagro, who for over a year and a half has been denouncing Maduro as a dictator, and his “civic-military government” as thugs waging a “dirty war” against the Venezuelan people — a strong label first used in the context of crimes against humanity committed by the Argentinean military junta in the 1970s.
Maduro has taken the first step to do away with any prospects of future electoral competition.
There is no denying it now: Venezuela’s government has crossed the line and become a full-fledged dictatorship. And dictatorial might soon turn totalitarian if the Constituent Assembly is allowed to create a single-party regime inspired by Cuba’s.
That Nicolás Maduro has resorted to overt electoral fraud, and that Lucena has chosen to rubberstamp it, indicates a degree of recklessness that suggests chavismo is approaching a cliff as it sees itself waging its final battle for survival. The country’s opposition will require more support than ever from democratic governments around the world if legitimate government is to prevail in Venezuela.