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Beware of the Malvinas: a referendum not for all

Maduro promotes consultation on Essequibo in his weekly program

The political crisis that Venezuela is going through today presents a situation characterized by two contradictory factors: the executive branch is determined to remain in power, counting on the submission of the electoral and judicial powers, on the one hand, and on the other, the meager popularity that Today Nicolás Maduro has, which radically restricts his chances of winning a fairly transparent election. And the presidential election must be held in 2024.

Faced with a similar situation, in 2018 Maduro chose to distribute administrative disqualifications to the most relevant opposition leaders, impeding their participation on the election, intervene judicially in the political parties that do not support him and then produce a flawed, illegal election, which took the political crisis to extraordinary levels and aggravated the economic and social situation of the country.

On this occasion, Maduro resorts to a new element with which he seeks to alter the 2024 presidential election, which, with eight million Venezuelans who have migrated in the face of the complex humanitarian crisis that his erratic administration has created, looks uphill for him: has rescued a centuries-old territorial dispute between Venezuela and Guyana and has begun to generate signals that even suggest the possibility of reaching a military conflict. This, obviously, is of the utmost seriousness.

A key piece of this strategy is the call for a consultative referendum for “the people to express” in relation to the territorial claim. Thus, from the beginning the exclusively political nature of the initiative is evident. Should and can the people express themselves in a fairly complete and informed manner on a topic whose nature is, in itself, of the highest complexity from the point of view of international law? It is clearly a wrong assumption, and, on the contrary, it is the duty of the administration, mainly through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to indicate to the executive branch the courses of action that allow adequate decision-making, precisely outside the public sphere that may be susceptible to nationalist exaltations. It happens, however, that in this case the nationalist exaltations are expressly promoted by the government. For what purpose does he do it? There are many options, and they all refer to regrettable episodes in the history of our continent, such as that of the Malvinas Islands.

The referendum will take place on December 3rd, and for this purpose a prior simulation was held on November 19. These drills are common in electoral events and allow us to fine-tune some technical and logistical aspects. In the case at hand, the simulation casts more doubts on the opaque management of the electoral entity: to date there are no official participation figures issued precisely by the electoral power, and, however, there are numerous public statements by senior government officials attributing high participation figures: another unequivocal sign of opacity.

But the drill brings other bad news: Venezuelans have not been allowed to participate abroad, contrary to what the law states. This portends that the National Electoral Council has no intention of complying with the law and respecting the political rights of the quarter of the Venezuelan population that is abroad.

In this way, the consultative referendum on the claim to Guyana, a claim that must be channeled through the mechanisms provided for in the 1966 Geneva Agreement, threatens to hinder the holding of the 2024 presidential election, and also weakens the legal arguments Venezuela has for the defense of its just claim, and will reaffirm the exclusion of millions of Venezuelans from this referendum and, presumably, from next year’s election.

The international community must be attentive to the next developments in the electoral situation in Venezuela, already complex in itself, and now openly worrying. Therefore, the electoral observation agreed upon in the Barbados negotiation is vital.