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Venezuela Plebiscite: The National Assembly vs. the Government

Venezuela Plebiscite: The National Assembly vs. the Government
Stephen J. Randall FRSC | July 2017

On Sunday July 16 more than two thousand Venezuelan residents in the Calgary area cast ballots in the plebiscite mandated by the Venezuelan National Assembly and in defiance of the United Socialist Party government of President Nicolas Maduro. Those casting ballots in Calgary were part of the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan expats in some seventy-five countries around the world who did so, along with the seven million who voted in Venezuela itself.

Voters were presented with three simple questions on which they could vote yes or no. Did they oppose the government’s plan to establish a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution? Did they want the military and all public officials to uphold the constitution and support the National Assembly?  Did they support holding new elections before Maduro’s term in office expires in 2018?

When ballots were counted in Venezuela and around the world the result was a resounding 95%+ for Yes. 

In Calgary the mood was celebratory. Voters and their children arrived carrying or draped in Venezuelan flags, wearing Venezuelan coloured clothing and accessories. Cameras flashed, people laughed and hugged. In solemnity they sang the Venezuelan national anthem at the opening of the polls. The six polling stations were staffed by well informed and efficient volunteer officials. The polls opened on schedule and the last voters filed in as the official day ended. News reports showed similar scenes in other major cities in the United States and Europe, long lines, enthusiastic voters. In Venezuela itself the situation was more tense. The plebiscite was not sanctioned by the Electoral Commission and was opposed by the Maduro government, which does not recognize the opposition Congress elected in 2015. Anti-plebiscite gangs roamed the streets intimidating voters, tossing smoke bombs into crowds and in one case shooting a woman in the poor and otherwise pro-Chavista Caracas neighbourhood of Catia. Police and National Guard stood by and watched such acts of intimidation without intervening. All this even with four former Latin American presidents present as official observers. Yet, even without official sanction and in the face of potential violence, voters persisted.

Protesters in Calgary want Venezuela President Maduro to be recalled and new elections held. Photo: www.cbc.ca 

The results are a clear indication of the strength of pro-democracy and anti-Maduro sentiment among the majority of voting age Venezuelans at home and abroad. Polls indicate support for the Maduro government has fallen to 20%. In any fair election today the government would be defeated. The country’s economy is in chaos. Lower oil prices for the past few years have significantly reduced revenues. One New York financial institution indicated that the inflation rate in 2016 was 453%. There are shortages of basic foodstuffs and other essential commodities. The black market is rampant. Social order has broken down with pro-Maduro paramilitaries (colectivos) operating with impunity. The opposition Democratic Unity coalition has called for a national strike, and the courageous Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz continues to defy the Maduro appointed Supreme Court in her efforts to stop the creation of a new constitution.

Will any of it make any difference? Maduro has pressed ahead with his intention to hold a vote July 30 to establish a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions. Faced with threats from the United States to sanction Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López and Socialist Party leader Diosdado Cabello for human rights violations, Maduro was defiant. There is little hope of intervention by the highly politicized Venezuelan military to resolve the worst political and economic crisis in Venezuelan history. Unlike traditional militaries, Venezuela’s has a significant role in running the country, controlling food imports and the distribution of foodstuffs as well as the operation of the oil industry and a number of other state institutions. The military has for decades now been lavished with high salaries and the technical goodies it covets. Factions of the military are also heavily involved in narcotics trafficking, with competing cartels within the military itself, so its incentive to act in defense of the constitution is minimal. Whether the Maduro government is able to continue to stand against massive domestic and international opposition and pressures remains to be seen.

 

Dr. Randall was the official observer for the Calgary plebiscite voting. He served with the Organization of American States, Unit for the Promotion of Democracy, in the 1993 Venezuelan national elections and with the Carter Presidential Center in the Venezuelan Recall Referendum in 2004.

Stephen J. Randall is Faculty Professor and Professor Emeritus at the University of Calgary. He served as Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences (1994-2006) at the University of Calgary. He held previous appointments at McGill University (1974-1989) and the University of Toronto (1971-1974).  He is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada; holds the Order of Merit, Grand Cross and Order of San Carlos from Colombia.;  he held a Fulbright Chair at American University  in Washington DC (2007).  He has worked with the UN, OAS and Carter Presidential Center on elections in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Venezuela, Jamaica and Cambodia. He has worked on and in Colombia since the late 1960s. His most recent books are: United States foreign oil policy since World War I. (2005); the authorized biography of Alfonso López Michelsen, President of Colombia (1974-1978) by Villegas Editores in Bogotá (2007). His study of Colombian-American relations: Frente a La Estrella Polar was  published by Random House Colombia in Spanish in 2017.