Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro offers a press conference at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on August 22, 2017. Chile said Tuesday it has granted diplomatic asylum to five Venezuelans who took refuge in its embassy in Caracas, amid political turmoil as Maduro moves to consolidate power. The five were among a group of 33 jurists who had been named to the Venezuelan Supreme Court by the opposition-controlled National Assembly on July 31 in defiance of the government. / AFP / Juan BARRETO Image Credit: AFP

The Venezuelan regime has established, slowly but surely, a full-blown dictatorship. How did it get there?

In 2005, the opposition boycotted parliamentary elections to protest bias by the National Electoral Council (CNE). This withdrawal gave the government total control of parliament for five years. The opposition only decided to return to the electoral fray when opinion polls suggested it could win against supporters of then President Hugo Chavez.

When the popularity of the Bolivarian administration began to dive due to a worsening economy, the regime began to disqualify candidates, jail opponents, blackmail voters, manipulate electoral rolls, cancel scheduled elections and engage in massive voter fraud. Even when it accepted election defeat for certain state governorships, and in the legislative elections of 2015, the government deprived the institutions, lost to opponents, of any significant power or resources.

In 2013, Nicolas Maduro was elected President in contested polls that may have involved fraud despite a stamp of approval from the CNE. The opposition still saw elections as the only way out of the national impasse. When it won an absolute majority of seats in parliament in 2015, a Supreme Court loyal to the government systematically began to strip parliament of its powers and, effectively, make it irrelevant.

We should not be surprised that, in spite of enjoying the backing of most Venezuelans, opposition parties are unable to unify against the regime.

Last year, the opposition sought to implement a mechanism for calling a referendum to cut short Maduro’s grip on power. Opinion polls indicated that such a vote would have easily gone in their favour. Unsurprisingly, the CNE arbitrarily suspended the process, leaving the opposition with no option except civil resistance.

The vote in early August to elect members of the National Constituent Assembly is yet another example of the CNE’s rampant corruption. Its officials say that 8.1 million people voted that day. Reuters reported that at 5:30pm (local time) — just two hours before polling stations closed — only 3.7 million had cast their ballot. The IT company that installed the voting machines later said the regime had manipulated vote numbers by “at least” one million. The head of CNE, Tibisay Lucena, is one of 13 senior Venezuelan officials who was recently slapped with sanctions by the United States.

In recent days, Henry Ramos Allup, a former parliamentary speaker and head of the opposition Democratic Action Party, made a disconcerting declaration. His party, he said, would run in state governor elections scheduled for December. Other figures in the opposition coalition Table of Democratic Unity (known by the acronym Mud in Spanish), are also considering taking part. The legislator, Diosdado Cabello, considered the second most powerful figure in the regime, rightly mocked Allup for accepting to run in CNE-organised elections, which the opposition already anticipates will involve massive fraud.

Such internal division is a problem for the opposition. While some leaders insist on the regime’s immediate expulsion through civil resistance, others are prepared to reach a compromise in exchange for flawed regional elections. We should not be surprised that, in spite of enjoying the backing of most Venezuelans, opposition parties are unable to unify against the regime. One is reminded of a quote, which some attribute to Albert Einstein: “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” That certainly describes certain elements of the Venezuelan opposition.

— Worldcrunch, 2017/New York Times News Service

Juan Carlos Hidalgo is a policy analyst on Latin America at the Centre for Global Liberty and Prosperity, Washington DC