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Losing may help Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro’s international image

Posters Saturday showing the late President Hugo Chavez called for voters to pick pro-government parties in Sunday’s election.
Posters Saturday showing the late President Hugo Chavez called for voters to pick pro-government parties in Sunday’s election. AP

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s administration has an opportunity to turn a terrible loss into an advantage if the ruling socialist party loses control of the nation’s congress in balloting Sunday, as many expect.

While losing control of the National Assembly would be a huge setback for Maduro and a disappointment to the followers of the late President Hugo Chávez, whose United Socialist Party of Venezuela has controlled the legislature for 16 years, it also would provide an opportunity for Maduro to reverse his reputation for unfair elections and human rights abuses.

All he has to do is accept a losing outcome, something polls indicate is likely.

“Maduro could say ‘Look, don’t call me not democratic anymore,’ ” said Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College. “ ‘I conducted an election. And I accepted defeat. Enough with the discussion that the system is rigged.’ ”

Not all countries would be swayed, Corrales said, but such a gesture – if it happens – might go a long way toward defusing some of the international tensions over Maduro’s administration, though the results of a single election might not restore an image tarnished over the years by electoral irregularities and allegations of human rights abuses.

Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, recently sent the Maduro administration a scathing 18-page letter blasting the government for stifling political dissent, manipulating the press and banning opposition leaders from running for office.

Maduro could say, ‘Look, don’t call me not democratic anymore.’

Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College

One candidate, Leopoldo López, a Harvard-educated former mayor of a wealthy section of Caracas, was arrested and sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison in September on charges of inciting violence in anti-government protests that resulted in the deaths of 40 people.

“It has been some time in our region since a top opposition figure was imprisoned around the time of an election,” Almagro wrote. “The last such case was that of (opposition leader) Wilson Ferreira Aldunate in Uruguay in 1984.”

The Venezuelan ambassador to the OAS, Bernardo Álvarez, responded with a rebuke of his own. Speaking to the international organization’s permanent council, he accused Almagro of lacking impartiality and joining a campaign to undermine the Venezuelan government.

“For us he is a political actor whose actions are part of a destabilization campaign against Venezuela,” Alvarez said. “He’s lost total credibility to act on our elections.”

Turmoil in Caracas has increased since last week’s murder of a local opposition leader and alleged death threats against López’s wife.

The U.S. State Department appears to largely be taking a wait-and-see approach to the election. Department officials declined an interview request but said they’d joined the OAS and other countries calling for international monitors of the vote.

The United States has recently stepped up talks on cooperation with the Venezuelan government. But at the same time U.S. officials have condemned the killing of Luis Manuel Diaz, the local leader of the Democratic Action party, and partisans of the Venezuelan government have charged that the U.S. is working through the OAS to destabilize the Venezuelan government.

Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive research center, said the U.S. government and the OAS were pushing the narrative that polls favored the opposition so that even if the ruling party won, the opposition could claim fraud. He said the polls were unreliable and didn’t reflect districts across the country where the ruling party was likely to do well.

“They’re always trying to delegitimize the Venezuelan government,” Weisbrot said.

When Maduro was his country’s foreign minister, he enjoyed a generally positive international reputation. He won accolades for his affable style, and cultivated important friendships in Cuba, Brazil and Argentina, among others.

In the months after he was elected president in 2013, he spent 50 days visiting 19 countries to cultivate international goodwill, Corrales said.

Whatever the outcome is on Sunday, I know my government is going to accept the result.

Maximilien Arvelaiz, Venezuelan ambassador-designate

But some of those relationships have soured amid allegations of human rights abuses. Before the April Summit of the Americas in Panama City, 25 former presidents from Latin America condemned the Venezuelan government for political persecution and demanded that López be released, as well as other jailed politicians.

Accepting a loss would send a positive signal that the government is open to working with people who hold opposing views, said Corrales and other Venezuelan scholars.

Venezuelan officials bristle at the idea that their electoral system is prone to being rigged. Maximilien Arvelaiz, Venezuela’s top diplomat in Washington, defended the Venezuelan electoral process and suggested that while the opposition might win the popular vote, it still might not take enough individual seats to win control of the National Assembly.

He questioned whether the opposition would respect that result.

“Whatever the outcome is on Sunday, I know my government is going to accept the result and we’ll move on,” Arvelaiz said. “But my worry is what is the opposition going to do?”

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