Europe must stand by Venezuela’s democrats

Isadora Zubillaga is deputy foreign minister of Venezuela’s interim government, which has been recognized by more than 50 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada and most EU member countries.

As the curtain fell on 2020, the political situation in Venezuela took a major turn for the worse. Sham legislative elections in December saw my country’s dictator, Nicolas Maduro, install a phony national assembly that lacks legitimacy. 

The international response was swift and clear. The European Union rightly condemned the elections for failing to “comply with the minimum international standards for a credible process” and stated it would not recognize the results. 

But in the past few weeks, the EU’s position has become increasingly muddled. While it has stopped short of recognizing Venezuela’s fraudulent national assembly, its stance on the interim government — the only democratically elected institution in the country — is shamefully ambiguous.  

In a recent statement, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell referred to Juan Guaidó, the country’s real president, as one of many “representatives of the outgoing National Assembly.” 

The phrase may appear inconsequential, but in reality, it undermines the will of the Venezuelan people and delegitimizes the procedures of Venezuela’s constitution. It also sends the wrong message to Maduro and his backers.    

After a demonstrably unfree election in 2019, Guaidó — then the speaker of the National Assembly — was sworn in as interim president, under a provision in the Venezuelan constitution. His legitimacy has been recognized by more than 50 governments worldwide, including the United States and most EU member countries. Borrell’s statement has the unfortunate consequence of casting that recognition in doubt.  

Now is not the time for Europe to turn its back on Venezuelan democracy. Instead, the EU should continue to recognize the mandate of the legitimate National Assembly (as the European Parliament just did in a resolution). It should stand firm in opposing policies and statements that reinforce Maduro’s claims and undermine the prospect of a genuinely free and fair presidential and parliamentary election in the year to come — which remains our country’s best and only hope.

This is not about Guaidó or the interim government. It is about creating a sustainable future for Venezuela which will only grow more desperate under Maduro’s reign.  

Recent weeks have seen a surge of state-sponsored violence and insecurity across Venezuela. Just this past week, special forces massacred at least 23 people in a brazen act of extrajudicial killing. As the needs of our people soar in the face of a global pandemic, humanitarian aid workers have been detained, harassed and prosecuted by Maduro’s cronies. Under his watch, growing numbers of Venezuelans are entering the ranks of the impoverished, with inequality and hunger reaching heights once unimaginable.  

The situation inside Venezuela is untenable. A political solution is urgently needed, and the EU has a critical role to play in achieving it.  

As a Venezuelan activist and exiled mother of two whose only dream is to return to their homeland, and as the interim government’s deputy foreign minister, I urge the EU to take the following steps to lay the groundwork for a political solution in Venezuela.  

First, support a Venezuelan-led solution. There is no question that a lasting solution to the Venezuelan crisis begins and ends inside Venezuela. The Venezuelan people alone should have the ultimate say on the future of our country and its place in the world.  

It is precisely because Venezuelans deserve to have our voices — and our votes — respected, that it is essential the EU actively supports the interim government until a free and fair presidential and parliamentary election is held.  

It’s no secret that the interim government has faced an uphill battle. We are imperfect. Forged together in the face of a brutal tyrant, we reflect the broad spectrum of political and economic philosophies and disagree on a lot of issues. 

And yet we are united on the most important one of all: Our future is democracy. No one person should be above the law. No one person should dictate who lives and dies, who has access to life-saving aid and who gets to speak their mind or be silenced. 

The interim government is the only democratically elected institution in our country. We are the last standing bedrock of our country’s democracy, and we are working relentlessly to ensure our people have a chance to determine their own future.     

Second, synchronize support with the Americas. All eyes are now on U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, for whom Venezuelan democracy will remain a top priority.  

The U.S. and EU have not always been on the same page when it comes to Venezuela, impeding an effective, blocking progress. The EU should quickly align its policy with Washington’s in order to forge a coherent global policy that supports a democratic transition through credible elections.  

Third, mix pressure with incentives to kickstart negotiations. The only path forward for Venezuela is that of free, fair and inclusive presidential elections in 2021. Left to his own devices, Maduro won’t agree to this. The only way to shift Maduro’s calculus in favor of transition is to deploy a mix of carrots and sticks that will bring him to the table.  

The U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom have already imposed a stronger set of targeted individual sanctions against Maduro and his allies. If Maduro refuses to agree to elections, those sanctions should be aligned with the EU.  

Europe’s financial loopholes — which have proved so lucrative for those looking to launder money — must be closed. Should Maduro and other members of the regime comply with a political transition and agree to a free and fair electoral process, then those sanctions can be eased. 

In addition, the EU should put its energy behind international accountability processes that can hold Venezuelan criminals to account for their rampant human rights abuses. This includes supporting efforts at the International Court of Justice, the Human Rights Council and through domestic courts using universal jurisdiction to ensure that the death squads roaming through Venezuela’s streets are held to account.  

And finally, Europe must champion an inclusive solution out of this political crisis that embraces the full diversity of the Venezuelan people. That means supporting the countless civil society organizations that are bravely delivering humanitarian aid and championing democratic values in the face of serious dangers. It means empowering Venezuelan women and youth with the resources they need to push for meaningful change.  

The interim government recognizes that it is only as powerful as the people it represents. Our mandate comes from the millions of Venezuelans who have stood up to tyranny and who continue to risk their lives to achieve the democratic practices so many take for granted.  

It is critical that the EU join us, and support us, in creating the change the Venezuelan people need.



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