Late on July 30, the president of Venezuela’s Electoral Council announced that more than 8 million people – or 41 percent of the electorate – had participated in the election of Constituent Assembly members convoked by the administration of President Nicolás Maduro.
The official results have been widely derided as implausible. The opposition estimates that just 12 percent of the electorate participated in yesterday’s vote, including many whose ballot was spoiled. The truth may be impossible to ascertain; there were no independent observers of the vote. The media was generally not allowed to get close to voting centers.
No matter the turnout, this vote was a travesty that should never have happened. Opinion polls conducted in recent weeks indicate that a large majority of Venezuelans opposed the Constituent Assembly’s creation. But the public never had a chance to vote on that question. On Sunday, they were only asked to choose candidates for the Assembly, from rolls that were stacked with government supporters.
Local human rights groups received dozens of complaints from Venezuelans who were told they would lose their jobs or access to food bags with items subject to government-controlled prices if they didn’t vote. There were violent clashes that led to at least 10 deaths, according to the Attorney General’s Office, and more of the increasingly familiar allegations of abuses against anti-government demonstrators.
Even before the final results were known, key governments in the region – including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and the United States – stated they would not recognize the Constituent Assembly. The list keeps growing, and now includes the European Union. More than 7 million Venezuelans opposed Maduro’s initiative in an informal plebiscite on July 16, according to the opposition, which organized that vote.
As expected, Maduro went on TV after the results were published and said that “no one will be above the Constituent Assembly,” that opposition leaders who continue on the streets will end in “jail” or in a “psychiatric institution,” and that the Attorney General’s Office would be “restructured.”
Venezuela is at a turning point, as are its regional neighbors. Latin America should show the world it will not tolerate a full-fledged dictatorship that is willing and able to commit widespread abuses against its people while unraveling the fundamental democratic principles that the region worked has hard to build.
When foreign affairs ministers from the region meet in Lima on August 8 for a special session on Venezuela’s crisis, they should send a strong political message to the Maduro administration. They should explicitly say they do not and will not recognize the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly or its actions. They should also commit to adopting strong diplomatic sanctions, including imposing collective, targeted sanctions against key officials involved egregious human rights abuses. And they should send a clear message to the Venezuelan government that those responsible for human rights violations will eventually be brought to justice, once judicial independence is restored in Venezuela.