The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The European Union makes a policy play in Venezuela. Washington is not amused.

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The Cold War lived on in socialist Venezuela, where, since Hugo Chávez courted the Kremlin in the 2000s, the United States and Russia engaged in what was largely a two-way game of influence. But another player has entered the fray in a big way: the European Union.

U.S. officials, current and former, are chafing against the increasingly assertive role of E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in the South American country. The most visible play by Borrell, a Spanish socialist, to insert the E.U. into the Venezuela debate: an official monitoring mission dispatched to Caracas to observe local and regional elections on Nov. 21. Critics fear it could lend international legitimacy to an electoral exercise they see as fundamentally flawed.

The elections happen as the pro-democracy movement in the oil-rich, authoritarian state is in danger of crumbling. Internal support for Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader recognized by the United States and several dozen nations as Venezuela’s rightful interim leader in early 2019, is unraveling due to infighting, as well as his lack of progress. Three of the four major opposition parties, Bloomberg recently reported, are now opposed to U.S. efforts to back Guaidó for another year.

As Venezuelans prepare to fill key governorships and mayoral posts, meanwhile, President Nicolás Maduro — Chavez’s handpicked successor — has outplayed the opposition, sowing confusion by fielding “friendly opposition” candidates in some races while succeeding in turning his enemies against each other in others.

Russia lent billions of dollars to Venezuela, became its major arms broker and invested heavily in its all important oil sector. In contrast, the United States during the Trump administration unleashed extreme pressure on Maduro — including harsh sanctions and threats (ultimately idle) to use military force for regime change. Borrell, who once likened Trump’s Venezuela policy to “cowboys in the Far West,” clearly sees a third way: engagement. He has described the E.U. mission to Venezuela as “a path towards credible, inclusive and transparent elections.”

Maduro is widely seen as having effectively stolen the 2018 presidential elections, while gradually leading the country down the path toward full-on authoritarianism. The E.U.’s observers, Borrell has argued, would help give a fair shot to opposition candidates running in their first election in three years, while providing oxygen to the country’s flagging pro-democracy movement.

The Biden administration, which has changed the tone but little of the substance of the Trump policy, has publicly played down any daylight between Europe and the United States. But privately, U.S. officials as well as some members of the Venezuelan opposition told me they fear the E.U. mission may turn out to be a gift to Maduro. The lead up to the vote has been anything but democratic. The elections are taking place after the pro-Maduro courts forcibly removed the heads of major opposition parties and while hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail and opposition candidates have limited access to media.

Those built-in advantages for Maduro could lead to a relatively clean election day for the cameras (and the E.U. observers) — even if that means granting a fiefdom or two to less radical members of the opposition.

“My concern is that the day of the election, the Europeans will say, ‘Well, it looked pretty good,' when we all know the real problem is that the fraud was already baked in,” one senior U.S. official told me on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

The net effect is uncertain. E.U. missions have proven stickers for democracy in the past. The U.S.-based Carter Center is also dispatching a small team of experts for the vote — too small, it says, to technically vet ballots. Rather, the team will assess transparency and the campaign environment. If both the E.U. and the Carter Center cry foul this month, it could in fact undermine Maduro at time when he is enjoying building momentum.

Yet Borrell’s own staff, dispatched to Caracas to evaluate conditions for a mission, have suggested that Maduro may be playing the E.U. The Financial Times reported last month that members of the evaluation team concluded that “the deployment of an EU (mission) is likely to have an adverse impact on the reputation and credibility of EU (observers) and indirectly legitimize Venezuela’s electoral process.” The team added that “the minimum conditions for election observation are not met at this time.”

This all matters because Maduro and Guaidó (and the opposition writ large) are locked in a global battle for legitimacy and recognition. Since Guaidó’s rival claim to the presidency was recognized by Washington and other nations nearly three years ago, the opposition has sought to diplomatically isolate Maduro. Slowly but surely, though, Maduro is coming out of the cold — winning fresh allies including the newly elected left-wing president in Peru, Pedro Castillo. In January, the European Union pulled its recognition of Guaidó as interim leader, describing him as simply a “privileged interlocutor.” In addition to Russia, China, Cuba, more recently Turkey and Iran also have served as life rafts against U.S. attempts to strand Maduro.

“Maduro is playing a legitimacy game, and we’re concerned about how the E.U.’s observers could be used by the dictatorship to that end,” Leopoldo López, Guaidó’s political mentor, told me in a recent conversation.

The E.U.’s growing involvement in Venezuela had previously piqued Trump administration officials. Elliott Abrams, Trump’s special envoy on Venezuela, told me in a recent conversation that he felt the decision by Brussels last year to court Henrique Capriles — a rival opposition leader and former presidential candidate — had been pivotal in damaging Venezuela’s pro-democracy movement. Capriles became a key player in negotiations with Maduro’s government and with the European Union, even as he publicly broke with Guaidó.

“That was a very damaging moment when opposition unity really ended,” Abrams said.

Borrell’s more nuanced position on Venezuela contrasts sharply with his stance on Nicaragua. He has blasted the left-wing President Daniel Ortega for constructing “one of the worst dictatorships in the world” and staging “fake” elections on Sunday, after seven main opposition challengers were placed under arrest.

Given the track record of such E.U. missions, its observers are unlikely to simply bless Venezuela’s vote. As of 2017, the E.U. has deployed at 120 such missions in 60 countries — many of which have yielded stark condemnations. In 2016, the E.U. stoked the ire of Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, Africanews reported, when it questioned the validity of the presidential elections. In 2019 in Mozambique, its observers denounced unfair conditions, ballot-box stuffing, multiple voting, intentional invalidation of votes for the opposition, as well as violence, in favor of incumbent President Filipe Nyusi. This year, however, the bloc dispatched a military training mission to the country.

Borrell’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Last month, though, he defended the Venezuela mission. “The elections in Venezuela are not like elections in Switzerland. The Venezuelan regime is what it is, as we well know,” Borrell said, according to the EFE news service.

“Someone explain to me how it hurts the opposition and the electoral process that we send a mission that will try to observe and report if the conditions are not met,” he said.

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