HOPES THAT Venezuela could emerge from its catastrophic political and economic collapse by democratic means suffered a crushing and perhaps terminal blow on Sunday. Having abolished the National Assembly, crushed street demonstrations, jailed nearly 500 opposition activists and all but wiped out independent media, the government of Nicolás Maduro staged elections for provincial governors. Polls showed the opposition, which reluctantly agreed to participate, would win up to two-thirds of the races — which was logical, since only about a fifth of Venezuelans still say they support the government. Yet the results announced by pro-regime election authorities were nearly the opposite: Seventeen of 23 governorships were awarded to Mr. Maduro's party, which was said to have collected 54 percent of the vote.
Stunned opposition leaders were unable to immediately point to tangible evidence of fraud in the vote count, though some of the results beggared belief: In the province covering greater Caracas, a longtime opposition stronghold, polls showed its candidate ahead by nine points, but the official count had him losing by six. Still, the pre-rigging of the election was clear enough. Among other measures, election authorities abruptly moved the polling places of more than half a million voters in anti- government neighborhoods to regime-friendly areas and printed ballots including multiple opposition candidates, including those who had been defeated in primary voting.
The electoral travesty was quickly denounced by the State Department, while the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, said, "The results of an election in a country with no guarantees for the effective exercise of democracy cannot be recognized." But the damage has been done. Mr. Maduro and his shrinking circle of international supporters, centered in Cuba and Russia, are claiming that his regime has proven it has a democratic mandate. In reality, it has all but shut down peaceful avenues for rescuing the country.
That Venezuela needs help is beyond question. In addition to the regime's violent repression of dissent, the country is paralyzed by shortages of food and medicine so severe that most of its citizens say they have lost weight, and hundreds of thousands have taken refuge in other countries. The inflation and murder rates are probably the highest in the world. Mr. Maduro and his clique, including senior military leaders, have set new standards for Latin American corruption, pocketing millions in graft and bribes and trafficking cocaine to the United States.
The Trump administration has rightly broken with a long history of U.S. passivity. Most of the regime's elite are banned from visiting the United States, and tough financial sanctions could eventually force a default on its huge foreign debts. But with military intervention not a workable or politically acceptable option, U.S. options are limited. Drastic measures, such as an embargo on oil imports from Venezuela, would only inflict even more misery on its 31 million people.
Mr. Maduro has been a spectacular failure at governing, but under the tutelage of his Cuban overseers he has succeeded in closing off almost all avenues for change. The best of those was a free and fair democratic election. Sunday's result suggests that such a vote is no longer possible.
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