The radical opposition’s case in the unfolding Venezuelan coup rest upon the claim that, since Nicolás Maduro’s second term in office was secured through an illegitimate election, the office of president has been vacated and should, constitutionally, be filled by the President of the National Assembly.
Leaving aside the question of whether a contested election means that the office of president has been vacated, an election narrative quite different from the one offered by the Venezuelan opposition and its American allies and repeated by the mainstream press emerges when some of the unsupported premises are questioned.
No one seriously claims that Maduro’s opponent, Henri Falcón, won more votes in the 2018 election. It wasn’t even close: Maduro beat Falcón by a vote of 6,245,862 to 1,927,387. The claim, instead, is that the vote is rendered illegitimate by the low voter turnout. And it was low by Venezuelan standards. But what the dominant narrative doesn’t tell you is why the turnout was low.
1. Low Voter Turnout: The American Plan
Voter turnout was low because Maduro’s opposition called on its followers not to vote. The radical opposition boycotted the election and encouraged their supporters not to vote. There could have been a bigger turn out, and there could have been an unboycotted election with candidates from every party for the people to choose from.
Maduro had initiated a series of negotiations with the opposition, during which an election date was agreed upon. The negotiations were mediated by the Dominican Republic and former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. At the last minute before the agreement was to be signed, the opposition withdrew and refused to sign. But they didn’t do it because they didn’t agree with the terms. They did it because they wanted to claim that an election held without them was illegitimate. Miguel Tinker Salas, Professor of Latin American History at Pomona College, and one of the world’s leading experts on Venezuelan history and politics, told me in a personal correspondence that they did it "in order to claim that Maduro lacked legitimacy.”
The boycott was strategic. Tinker Salas told me that “the opposition opted to abandon the electoral arena in the country and adopted the strategy of international pressure to oust Maduro. That is why they would not sign the negotiated agreement brokered last year by Jose Luis Zapatero that would have defused the current crisis.” Rodriguez Zapatero, himself, criticized the opposition’s decision, saying he did not agree with the decision and was shocked by it.
Though that part of the story is sometimes told – though not very often in the mainstream media – the striking part that is never told is that it was the U.S. that told the radical opposition to boycott the election to create the appearance of illegitimacy. The Venezuela government has accused the US of pressuring the opposition to withdraw from the election agreement in favor of regime change. Jose Rodriguez, Venezuela’s communications minister and the government’s representative to the negotiations, says that then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the opposition’s spokesperson, Julio Borges, and instructed him to refuse to sign the agreement.
2. The American Plan Was Actually Bigger. And it Failed.
There is evidence that the plan was not just an election that was boycotted by the radical opposition, but an election that was boycotted by every serious opposition candidate, so that Maduro could win only an uncontested victory. An uncontested victory in an election that wasn’t an election could easily be presented as an illegitimate election that granted Maduro an illusory mandate.
Though Tillerson’s call was successful at getting all serious oppositions candidates but Falcón to boycott the election, it was also meant to get Falcón to boycott the election. It was meant to erase the election. But Falcón did not join the boycott. Latin America expert Mark Weisbrot has reported that "According to a source with knowledge of the matter, the leading opposition contender for Venezuela’s May presidential election, Henri Falcón, was told by US officials that the Trump administration would consider financial sanctions against him if he entered the presidential race." When Falcón not only refused to boycott but reached out to other opposition leaders to side step the boycott and join his campaign, Todd Robinson, the top US diplomat in Venezuela, "met with Falcon" to try "to persuade him to withdraw as his challenge was undermining US efforts to isolate Maduro." Those moves left little doubt that the larger US plan was to hold all opposition candidates back, leaving an uncontested Maduro looking like the illegitimately anointed dictator of Venezuela.
3. The Contested Election
There is no doubt that the boycott by the radical opposition kept millions of people from the polls: the 46% turnout was low by recent Venezuelan standards. But the election was not the uncontested anointing of Maduro that the opposition and the media portray. Henri Falcón offered the electorate a legitimate alternative to Maduro. And it is not the case, as the media likes to present it, that all the big candidates were barred or boycotting, leaving only the remnant that was Falcón. Falcón was no unheard-of remnant of the boycott. The opposition aligned pollster Datanalisis had Falcón in a statistical tie with Leopoldo Lopez, and significantly ahead of Henrique Capriles, as the most popular opposition candidate. Lopez and Capriles are often considered the two most popular opposition candidates.
So, the American failure to pressure the entire opposition to boycott the election left Venezuelan voters with a real election.
4. Electoral Monitors
The Venezuelan opposition, the US and the mainstream media consistently call the 2018 election a sham. But their evidence is weak and their sources scarce. The opposition was happy with the electoral rules and with the electoral council that confirmed their victory in the 2015 national assembly.
The 2018 elections could have had the highest level of electoral monitoring. Maduro and Venezuela’s U.N. ambassador formally asked the UN to send observers to monitor the election. Falcón went to New York with the ambassador so that he, too, could try to persuade the UN to monitor the elections. It was the bloc of opposition boycotters – and some say the US – who acted as obstructionists and asked the UN not to send the monitors. If they couldn’t present the election as illegitimate because it was uncontested, then they would attempt to present it as illegitimate because it was unmonitored. That would allow them to claim that the election suffered from irregularities.
What the mainstream media never mentions, though, is that, even under the weight of opposition obstructionism, the elections were not unmonitored. At least four different groups of international observers monitored the election, including the International Electoral Accompaniment Mission of Latin America’s Council of Electoral Experts, an African Mission, and a mission made up of four Caribbean countries. All four certified the election as fair. The Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America (CEELA) is made up of former top electoral officials from throughout Latin America. It reported that “Technically, up until today, we have not observed any element that could disqualify the electoral process. . . . We can emphasize that these elections must be recognized, because they are the result of the will of the Venezuelan people.”
So, the US plan failed to prevent an election, the election was contested and it was fair.
5. Post Election
There is also a striking detail of the post election period that is never reported. The Venezuelan opposition is typically presented by the media as a monolithic bloc. It is not. The coalition represented by Juan Guaidó is an extremist group that has been largely discredited in Venezuela because of their past illegal involvement in coups and street violence. There is also a more moderate opposition. And that more moderate opposition has not followed Guaidó down the road of abandoning the electoral arena in favor of international pressure and coups. They have not even endorsed Guaidó.
Significant parts of the opposition didn’t only not follow Guaidó down that road, they didn’t even know he was going down it. The plan to have Guaidó declare himself president was the work of just a few radical opposition leaders, including Maria Corina Machado, Antonio Ledezma, Julio Borges and Leopoldo Lopez. Much of the rest of the opposition, including some who were standing on stage with Guaidó when he announced that he was the interim president of Venezuela, were caught completely off guard by the announcement. Though some in the opposition have aligned themselves with the move that blindsided them when they saw that it was working, some still have not.
Henrique Capriles has said that the majority of the parties of the opposition didn’t agree with Guaido’s self declaration as interim president and that the public declaration caught them by surprise. And Capriles is no minor figure. He is the opposition leader who has come the closest to defeating the government of Chavez and Maduro, losing to Maduro by only 1.5% in the first election after the death of Chavez.
So, it is not only as obvious as the media reports it that the people of Venezuela are united behind the opposition. Maduro received the votes of 31% of all eligible voters: more than Trump received in 2016 or Obama in 2012. It is not even obvious that the opposition is united behind Guaidó.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.