Venezuela Faces Rocky Road to Elections

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: A Venezuelan court rules against a popular presidential hopeful, Kenya’s president says he will send police to Haiti despite legal objections, and a parade honoring the Yanomami Indigenous group prepares to debut at Brazil’s Carnival.

The year began with hopes that other countries’ new policy approaches could facilitate some degree of democratic opening in Venezuela ahead of its presidential election expected later this year. Last October, the United States lifted some broad sanctions against Venezuela after a deal was brokered in Barbados between President Nicolás Maduro’s government and an opposition negotiating committee.

Venezuela pledged to respect certain conditions for competitive elections, including updating voter registries, allowing international observers to monitor the vote, and allowing candidates equal access to media coverage. These developments raised eyebrows among observers; the Maduro government has a track record of jailing and otherwise disenfranchising dissidents.

Alternative attempts to get Maduro to change his behavior have continuously fallen short. In 2019, dozens of foreign ministries officially recognized Juan Guaidó, then the president of Venezuela’s legislature, as the country’s rightful leader after a flawed election that awarded Maduro a second term. Maduro, however, survived the isolation campaign.

U.S. efforts at economic coercion were also unable to bring change: “Trump-era ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions failed to deliver even modest improvements in human rights,” Chatham House’s Christopher Sabatini wrote in Foreign Policy last week. The sanctions also further weakened Venezuela’s economy amid a slump that caused millions of people to flee the country, many to the United States.

Many European and Latin American governments thought that the Biden administration’s October decision to lift several sanctions was appropriate on harm reduction grounds and worth testing as a tool for democratic improvement. However, in light of a ruling against opposition leader María Corina Machado last week, Washington announced on Monday that it would reimpose sanctions on a Venezuelan mining company and threatened more if Caracas does not meet its obligations under the Barbados agreement.

Last Friday, Venezuela’s top court upheld a ban preventing Machado, the opposition’s leading presidential hopeful, from running in this year’s election. Machado faces allegations of fraud and tax violations, which she and international rights groups have denounced as politically motivated. Hard-line critics of Maduro said the decision by a court known for government-friendly judges showed Maduro was bluffing about a free vote the whole time.

But some analysts pointed to language in the Barbados deal that may have anticipated this scenario. The deal “did not include a commitment from the government to lift the ban” on Machado, just that it would be reviewed, the International Crisis Group’s Mariano de Alba posted on X (formerly Twitter).

The opposition negotiators in Barbados—who favor engagement with Maduro more than his hard-line critics—were willing to accept a scenario in which Machado couldn’t run as long as elections went ahead with more political freedom than in the past. Last October, as de Alba pointed out, U.S. officials said their focus was on a “process that restored democracy” rather than a “particular candidate.”

Still, the latest ruling against Machado, taken together with the Maduro administration’s detention of opposition members in recent months, caused blowback in the United States. On Tuesday, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said these actions were “inconsistent with the agreements signed in Barbados.”

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on Monday that Maduro had until April to fulfill his commitments under the deal and that the United States would decide whether to reimpose sanctions accordingly, leaving an opening for some sanctions to remain lifted. A handful of Democratic and Republican lawmakers called for an immediate sanctions snapback, while other stakeholders said returning to a failed policy was not the right response.

Gerardo Blyde, the head of the Venezuelan opposition team that negotiated the Barbados deal, said he viewed the ban against Machado as a violation of the agreement but that it was still possible to save it. The day after the ruling on Machado, he appealed to the presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and France to ensure that the agreement was upheld.

The last few years have shown the limits of external actors, especially the United States, in guaranteeing a fair democratic playing field in Venezuela. But foreign governments do have some power to shape the voting landscape—as they did in Guatemala’s elections last year—and lend support to democratic outcomes as long as internal pro-democracy forces are unified and organized.

As in Guatemala, the road to elections in Venezuela is full of potential stumbling blocks. Responding to the ban against Machado, Blyde suggested that many people in the opposition were prepared to soldier on. “We are not abandoning the negotiating table,” he said at a press conference last Saturday.

Sunday, Feb. 4: El Salvador holds presidential and legislative elections.

Thursday, Feb. 15, to Friday, Feb. 16: Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visits Egypt.

Wednesday, Feb. 21, to Thursday, Feb. 22: G-20 foreign ministers meet in Rio de Janeiro.

Sunday, Feb. 25, to Wednesday, Feb. 28: Guyana hosts the Caribbean Community leaders’ summit.

Protesters hold signs in front of Argentina's National Congress during a national strike.
Protesters hold signs in front of Argentina’s National Congress during a national strike.

Protesters hold signs in front of Argentina’s National Congress during a national strike against the fiscal policies of Argentine President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires on Jan. 24. Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images

Unions strike back. Argentine President Javier Milei has watered down his flagship legislation to impose sweeping austerity measures after protests against the plan and pushback from opponents in Argentina’s National Congress. Last week’s demonstrations were thought to be the fastest that Argentine unions have called for a general strike in any new presidential administration. Since the earliest version of the bill, Milei has reneged on a proposal to privatize Argentina’s state energy company.

Although he lacks a majority in both houses of Congress, Milei still aims to drastically cut state spending. The International Monetary Fund praised those ambitions as “bold” on Wednesday and has approved a loan disbursal for the country. It also projected this week that Argentina’s economic output would shrink 2.8 percent this year amid the adjustment.

Bukele on the ballot. El Salvador will go to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president and legislature that aren’t expected to change much. Incumbent President Nayib Bukele is popular with voters and holds a large majority in the Legislative Assembly. Salvadorans are mostly happy that crime dropped after Bukele’s campaign of mass arrests. Those detained have faced mass trials, prompting human rights groups to argue that their right to legal defense is being violated.

In 2021, the pro-Bukele legislature took the controversial step of replacing multiple Supreme Court justices at once. The Bukele-friendly top court then ruled that presidential reelection was allowed despite a ban in the country’s constitution, paving the way for his current presidential bid.

A Carnival debut. Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival parade contest features an annually changing group of floats, songs, and dances that celebrate—and sometimes satirize—different aspects of Brazilian history. This year, for the first time, one of Rio’s oldest and most successful carnival parade groups has devoted its show to Brazil’s Yanomami Indigenous group.

The parade was inspired in part by a book co-written by Davi Kopenawa, a contemporary Yanomami shaman, and anthropologist Bruce Albert. The Falling Sky, a mix of Yanomami shamanic philosophy and Kopenawa’s biography, has gained critical acclaim for its portrayal of the Yanomami since its publication in 2010. Its inclusion in the float contest, which is broadcast on national television, will highlight its crossover to fame among the wider public.

The Yanomami are currently experiencing a nutrition and sanitation crisis, as gold miners and others encroach on their federally protected territory in the Amazon rainforest. Kopenawa advised the Carnival costume, float, and song designers to celebrate Yanomami vitality and depict a people who were fighters rather than victims, the Sumaúma news platform reported. Kopenawa himself will ride atop one float, accompanied by a song whose chorus, Ya temi xoa, means “I’m still alive.”

Which of the following is another Brazilian Indigenous group?

The Tupi were thought to have first settled in the Amazon rainforest before moving south to the Atlantic coast.

Families rest in the streets to escape the gangs in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Families rest in the streets to escape the gangs in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Families rest in the streets to escape the gangs in Solino, a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 18. Richard Pierrin/AFP via Getty Images

Just over three months after the U.N. Security Council greenlit a Kenyan-led multinational police force to help stabilize Haiti, Kenya’s top court ruled last week that such a mission would be unconstitutional. Kenyan opposition figures sued to try to stop the country’s involvement in the mission, which Kenyan President William Ruto said demonstrated Kenyan leadership. Opponents said Kenya had more urgent security priorities at home.

The prospect of an international security mission has been controversial from the start. Past U.S.- and U.N.-led missions have failed to bring long-term stability to Haiti, which faces high levels of gang violence. Polls show that many Haitians approve of the prospect, but vocal members of Haiti’s civil society and political opposition have warned that the intervention could further entrench Acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who has ruled the country unelected since 2021, when then-President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated.

The Kenyan court’s ruling rests on grounds that the Kenyan executive branch does not have the authority to send its police forces to countries with which it does not have a police force-sharing agreement. Undeterred by the ruling, Ruto announced that he and Haitian officials were working to formalize such a deal. On Tuesday, he said Kenyan troops could be deployed to Haiti “as soon as next week.”

Washington has pledged $200 million toward the Kenyan-led mission. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said some of that would be funded by the Defense Department and some would require approval from Congress, which has struggled to pass security aid to Ukraine and Israel in recent months.

Ruto’s promise for an upcoming deployment comes as Haiti approaches a symbolic deadline: The agreement that has kept Henry in power is set to expire next week. Multiple negotiations have tried to reach a deal between Henry and opposition groups on how to stage new elections, but as of late Thursday, none had succeeded.

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