Washington, Pro-Democracy? Depends on the Country

Pakistan just held an election; Venezuela is about to. Both incumbent governments have banned the leading opposition figure from competing. The United States sanctioned one and was silent on the other. What was the difference? Not international law or responsible leadership, both of which require a consistent application of laws and a consistent response. The important difference was that the United States supported the incumbent coup government in one case and opposed the incumbent coup survivor in the other.

On January 30, the United States reversed the small and rare diplomatic progress it had made with Venezuela by revoking the sanction relief on gold mining and by promising to revoke the sanction relief on Venezuela’s oil and gas sector at the first opportunity. The State Department cited “Actions by Nicolas Maduro and his representatives in Venezuela, including the arrest of members of the democratic opposition and the barring of candidates from competing in this year’s presidential election” as the reason.

Of central concern to the United States was its choice of an opposition leader to run against Nicolás Maduro, Maria Corina Machado, who recently appeared before a roundtable organized by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs subcommittee. On January 26, Venezuela’s highest court upheld the decision to bar Machado from running for president in the upcoming election.

But Machado was banned for reasons that might be considered reasonable in some democracies. She has a long history of being involved in coups against the democratically elected government of Venezuela. During the failed 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez, Machado was a signatory to the Carmona Decree, which suspended democracy, revoked the constitution, and installed a coup president.

As if participation in a coup is not enough to be barred from running for president, Machado was stripped of her position in the National Assembly in 2014 for acting, according to Miguel Tinker Salas, Professor of Latin American History at Pomona College and one of the world’s leading experts on Venezuelan history and politics, as “a delegate of the Panamanian government” who “sought to testify before the Organization of American States.” She sought to testify against her own country.

That same year, Miguel Tinker Salas says, “hoping to precipitate a crisis,” Machado helped organize La Salida, The Exit, to push President Maduro out of power. She “sought to mobilize forces and take to the streets.”

The next year, in 2015, Venezuelan officials produced evidence in support of their claim of a U.S.-backed coup attempt. According to the officials, the day before the planned coup, Machado joined two other opposition leaders in signing a National Transition Agreement. They say weapons were found in the office of the opposition party.

Machado has endorsed economic sanctions on Venezuela and foreign military intervention to remove the government of Venezuela.

Despite this record, the United States reimposed sanctions for barring Machado. The European Parliament went even further, denying that the Venezuelan court has legal grounds and insisting that Machado “remains eligible to run for the elections.” It says “Unless María Corina Machado is allowed to participate in the elections…elections and election results will not be recognised.” The European Parliament then urged EU member states “to tighten existing sanctions” and to add new sanctions on judges of Venezuela’s Supreme Court.

In Pakistan, the story is very different. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan has been jailed and banned from running in the presidential election. His party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has been demolished by the Pakistani military, who arrested its senior members.

But the American response to the barring – and even jailing—of, perhaps, the most popular candidate has been very different from their reaction to the barring of Machado in Venezuela. The State Department says that the arrest of Khan “is an internal matter for Pakistan” and that, “The United States is prepared to work with the next Pakistani government, regardless of political party…”

The difference may reflect American position on coups in these countries. Whereas, the United States has supported multiple failed coup attempts to remove the current government in Venezuela and, so, opposes that government; it supported what seems to have been the coup that replaced Khan with the current government.

In April 2022, Khan was removed from office in a non-confidence vote. Khan has claimed that the non-confidence vote was a U.S.-backed coup in democratic disguise. He may not be wrong. A leaked Pakistani cable reveals a meeting between Asad Majeed Khan, then-Pakistani ambassador to the United States, and two State Department officials, one of whom was Donald Lu, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs

Lu begins the meeting by expressing that the United States and Europe “are quite concerned about why Pakistan is taking such an aggressively neutral position” on the war in Ukraine. He pins responsibility for Pakistan’s neutral defiance of the U.S. on Khan, saying, “it seems quite clear that this is the Prime Minister’s policy.” Lu informs the Pakistani ambassador that the trigger for the American concern was “the Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow.” On the day Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Khan was in Moscow, meeting with Putin. He defied the United States by refusing to cancel the meeting.

Lu then advises Pakistan’s ambassador, “I think if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the Prime Minister. Otherwise, I think it will be tough going ahead…[H]onestly I think isolation of the Prime Minister will become very strong from Europe and the United States.”

As the polls closed in the Pakistani election, and the media began reporting stunning victories by independent candidates associated with Khan’s PTI party, the Election commission of Pakistan suddenly paused the announcement of results in remaining constituencies. By the time announcements restarted, PTI candidates who had been leading had suddenly lost.

The candidates associated with the PTI were running as independents because they were neither allowed to campaign under the PTI name nor even be identified by the PTI symbol on ballots, challenging voters’ ability to even identify PTI candidates. TV stations were banned from airing Khan’s speeches. Cell phone and internet services were cut, creating logistical confusion for voters. Voter suppression was widespread.

Despite all the obstacles, PTI candidates forced to run as independents won 102 seats. The second place party, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, came in second with 73 seats. Despite winning the most seats, Khan’s party did not win a majority in the 265 seat National Assembly and will have trouble forming the government.

The U.S. State Department assessed that the election featured “undue restrictions on freedoms of expression…electoral violence…attacks on media workers, and access to the internet and telecommunications services, and…allegations of interference in the electoral process.” Despite that assessment, it declared that it “is prepared to work with the next Pakistani government, regardless of political party.”

Yet again following a foreign policy guided by a rules-based order that only applies the law when it benefits the United States and its allies, instead of a foreign policy guided by international law that applies the same universal standard impartially, the U.S. has confirmed the worst suspicions of a global majority that is losing faith in American leadership. The U.S. sanctions Venezuela for banning a candidate from competing in elections but is willing to work with Pakistan who has done the same. “As consistency starts to be questioned,” S. Jaishankar, India’s Minister of External Affairs has said, “many more nations will start to do their own thinking and planning.”

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at tedsnider@bell.net.