Today, after weeks of concerted mobilizing by civil society and persistent negotiations between opposition representatives and the Maduro government, the new members of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) were announced. While in itself insufficient to restore democracy, the new composition of the electoral authority marks an important step. The U.S. government should acknowledge the significance of the new CNE, as well as other recent concessions by the Maduro regime, by engaging the Venezuelan government and opposition in ways that could lead to free and fair elections in the country.
The CNE is responsible for overseeing the entire electoral process in Venezuela, from campaigning to tallying votes, and will have a mandate to supervise elections for the next seven years. Two of the new principal rectors, Enrique Márquez and Roberto Picón, have significant political and technical experience and are associated with the opposition. Picón is a former political prisoner and key figure in opposition electoral successes in the past, and was nominated for the position by the Foro Cívico (Civic Forum), an independent civil society coalition that brings together NGOs, labor unions, religious organizations, academic institutions, and business associations. Mr. Picón’s inclusion represents a notable achievement of the Foro Cívico and underscores its growing importance in mobilizing civil society.
Today’s announcement should be considered alongside other recent developments in Venezuela. This includes the historic agreement reached with the World Food Programme, in which the UN agency gained access to provide food aid to 1.5 million children over the next two years. It also follows recent statements from Venezuelan government officials who say they will continue to engage with the opposition to work to bring in Covid-19 vaccines through the World Health Organization’s COVAX mechanism. Also in recent days, six imprisoned CITGO executives who are U.S. citizens were released to house arrest.
Each of these are important developments. The question remains whether the Maduro government is willing to offer further concessions that could, ultimately, lead to the re-democratization of the country. Any solution must involve a clear path to free and fair presidential and legislative elections. The Maduro government must also free political prisoners, end restrictions on political participation for opposition figures, and cease repression of civil society, the press, and humanitarian organizations.
Finding a path back to democracy will not be easy. But it is most likely to occur in a stepwise fashion, in which concessions by Maduro are acknowledged and reciprocated in some form by international stakeholders pressuring for a return to democracy. The Biden administration needs to develop a flexible policy that offers phased relief from U.S. sanctions in exchange for substantive and verifiable actions towards a solution. It is important that the White House does not confuse “maximum pressure” with the end goal: restoring Venezuela’s democratic institutions. Recent events in Caracas mark a small step in the right direction, and the Biden administration should clearly signal its recognition of progress made—both to acknowledge recent advances and help create incentives to achieve more significant progress in restoring democracy.