Biden Continues Trump Policies Towards Venezuela
New Secretary of State Antony Blinken told members of the US Senate that recently inaugurated President Biden will continue to recognize Venezuelan self-proclaimed “Interim President” Juan Guaido as that country’s legitimate leader. Blinken also claimed the Biden administration would look to use unilateral sanctions “more effectively” in its efforts to oust the Maduro government.
Former White House Special Envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams told the Miami Herald he expected “no major changes” after meeting incoming foreign policy officials, while Guaido’s US representative Carlos Vecchio was a guest at the inauguration.
For their part, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and other officials have expressed a desire for improved relations with the US based on “respect and cooperation.”
Venezuela has been hit with successive rounds of punishing coercive measures by the US Treasury, affecting sectors from banking to food imports, with special focus on Venezuela’s oil industry. The US imposed an oil embargo in January 2019, then levied secondary sanctions, targeting shipping companies and swap deals. One of the Trump administration’s final acts saw the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) blacklist three individuals, six vessels and 14 companies allegedly involved with Venezuela’s oil sector. US sanctions have seen state oil company PDVSA forced to use a network of intermediaries which then reroute cargoes to final customers, most of them in Asia.
With the outgoing and incoming administrations tightening the blockade, however, fuel suppliers, oil companies and aid groups are reportedly looking to press the Biden White House to allow crude-for-diesel swap deals once again. The sanctions architecture shut Caracas out of traditional financial channels, with crude for gasoline or diesel exchanges increasingly relied upon before Washington’s clampdown.
Diesel shortages in particular can have devastating effects on sectors such as agriculture or public transportation, while also affecting electricity generation. PDVSA has restarted some of the country’s refineries with Iranian assistance, but operations have been frequently halted and production is still far from meeting the current demand.
US sanctions have been deemed responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and classified as “collective punishment.” A number of multilateral bodies, including the United Nations, have criticized the measures for their impact on the Venezuelan population, while the Maduro government has filed a lawsuit at the International Criminal Court (ICC), describing sanctions as a “crime against humanity.”
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Illegal US Sanctions and Economic Blockade
The application of unilateral economic sanctions is an explicit violation of international law protected under the UN and Organization of American States’ charters, human rights stipulations. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is facing one of the worst economic and social crises in its history due in large part due to the illegal US blockade and secondary sanctions. While sanctions applied to US entities to prevent them doing business with Venezuela are damaging, because of the weight of the US economy in the Western Hemisphere, secondary sanctions applied extraterritorially effectively forbid third-party entities from trading, investing, and otherwise engaging with Venezuela at the risk of being cut off from the US-dollar-based global financial system.
Vital medical equipment and drugs are officially “exempt” from sanctions, but they are effectively blocked because the US denies Venezuela access to the international banking system to pay for them. An estimated 100,000 people have been killed by US sanctions, according to former expert for the United Nations Human Rights Council for the promotion of an international democratic and egalitarian order, Alfred de Zayas.
The US blocked Iranian gasoline deliveries and sanctioned shipping companies whose vessels attempted to ship fuel to the country. Shortages hampered internal travel and electricity generation. Fuel shortages also impacted the electoral process, impeding transport of items needed for elections such as voting machines, ballots, forms, poll workers, etc.
Venezuela has been one of the least affected countries in the region when it comes to COVID-19 largely due to the preventive measures implemented by the government, including obligatory face masks and face shields in public places, widespread use of hand sanitizers, and a radical voluntary social quarantine program with seven working days followed by seven days of quarantine (7+7) which made it possible to flatten the infection curve.
Although COVID-19 has been relatively well contained in the country, it created an unprecedented electoral environment. The CNE developed and rolled out a detailed set of protocols to ensure the safety of all participating in the electoral process. This included mandatory PPE, hand sanitizing stations, and physical distancing measures at all polling stations across the country. The 7+7 program also constrained the movement of international election observers who had to enter and exit the country within one 7-day window.
Electoral and Voting Details
Venezuelans elect members of the National Assembly, the country’s unicameral legislature, every five years. There were 29,600 voting precincts (mesas) set up in 14,200 voting centers across the country in 87 constituencies. 20,710,421 enezuelans registered to vote in the 2020 parliamentary elections, a 6 per cent increase from the 2015 parliamentary elections.
107 political parties participated representing more 14,480 candidates running for 277 seats in the National Assembly. Out of the 277 seats, 48 were elected on national lists, 96 on regional lists, 130 as individuals (nominal seats), and 3 seats reserved for indigenous deputies.
The Venezuelan voting system combines both nominal and proportional representation, which assures proportionality and fair representation. With nominal representation, the candidate who receives the largest number of votes wins. In proportional representation, voters elect representatives through a system of closed lists and proportional state-level representation. The 2009 Organic Law of Suffrage enshrines the principal more firmly and describes the way in which the seats in parliament are assigned. This law was used to assign the seats for the deputies in the outgoing Venezuelan National Assembly. It is a fair and equitable system which respects the will of those voting and ensures representativeness.
Venezuela’s elections utilize the latest in secure voting technology to ensure that each vote is counted fairly and cannot be tampered with. It is among the first in the world to implement automated biometric authentication by fingerprint in 2012. Venezuela was the first in the world in 1998 to use electronic voting machines that provide a voter verified paper audit trail.
Audits of Voting Software and Machines
The CNE carries out a pre-dispatch audit of voting machines, to validate and replicate all stages of the electoral process, sampling 0.5% of voting mesas. These replicate and validate all the stages of the electoral process, verifying that both the software and data, as well as the operation of the hardware, correspond to what was audited in previous phases. This is done before every election, in the presence of representatives of contesting political organizations.
To make sure health protocols for COVID-19 were observed, the CNE used videoconferencing so Venezuelan and international election experts could participate actively in all of the audits mandated for elections. The election technicians from the political parties were personally present for these audits.
On Nov 4, 2020, a Democratic Unity Roundtable technician said all of the electoral specialists appointed by the opposition had confirmed the effectiveness and transparency of the Venezuelan electoral system in every one of the audits performed.
Technical experts from many political parties took part in these audits. Also present were members of the Latin American Council of Election Experts (CEELA) and technicians from Turkey, Argentina, Russia, Iran, and South Africa were also in attendance.
1,800 election observers participated and scrutinized the electoral process: 1,600 domestic experts and 200 international observers, political leaders and election experts from more than 17 countries.
Turnout was 30.5% of all eligible voters. This is relatively low compared to previous elections, not entirely due to the boycott by the extreme opposition aligned with Juan Guaidó. First, National Assembly elections historically draw less voter participation than presidential and referendum elections. Second, millions have migrated out of the country in the face of severe economic conditions, made still worse by the blockade and sanctions. Third, the shortage of fuel and day-long gasoline queues presented exceptional challenges to getting to voting centers. Fourth, the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly kept some at-risk voters from venturing out in spite of the high-level of bio-security protocols of the CNE.
The final election results reaffirm that there is viable political opposition in the country that will continue to have representation in the new National Assembly:
The ruling coalition, the Great Patriotic Pole (led by the PSUV) – 4,317,819 votes or 69.32%; Alianza Democrática (Democratic Alliance coalition) – 1,101,816 votes or 17.68%; United Venezuela Alliance, – 260,604 votes or 4.19%; Communist Party of Venezuela – 170,227 votes or 2.73%; (seven minor parties registered less than 2% or 1% each). Of the 277 national assembly seats: Great Patriotic Pole Coalition won 253 (of which United Venezuela Socialist Party won 219); Democratic Alliance Coalition won 18 seats (Democratic Action Party won 11); United Venezuela Coalition won 2 seats (Venezuela First won 2); Communist Party of Venezuela won 1 seat; three seats are designated for the indigenous.