On Tuesday, May 4 Venezuela’s PSUV-controlled National Assembly elected in December 2020 voted to elect a new National Electoral Council (CNE). Out of the five primary rectors, two are linked to the opposition and have deep technical and political experience, marking the first time since 2005 that individuals associated with the opposition will hold as many seats on the council. Tuesday’s decision follows months of negotiations between elements of the opposition and Maduro government and mobilizing efforts by Venezuelan civil society to name a more credible electoral authority.
The new CNE has a mandate to oversee every step of the electoral process in Venezuela for the next seven years, and has significant implications for regional elections expected later this year, as well as for presidential elections slated for 2024. Out of the 15 members of the CNE (including five primary rectors and ten supplementary rectors), four—Roberto Picón, Griselda Colina, Francisco Martínez, and León Arismendi—were included in a list of candidates nominated by the civil society coalition Foro Cívico in March. WOLA released a statement on May 4 noting the significance of the new CNE, along with other concessions recently made by the Maduro government, in bringing Venezuela one step closer to free and fair elections.
Reactions to the news within Venezuela have varied. Foro Cívico released a statement on May 6 regarding the decision as “a first step towards the difficult recovery of democratic institutions in Venezuela.” The opposition led by Juan Guaidó, on the other hand, issued a variety of different statements with a range of different reactions to the news. Guaidó himself issued a statement rejecting the decision as it “had not been endorsed, much less negotiated” by opposition parties, following an earlier agreement to preemptively reject any CNE named by the current National Assembly. A statement released on May 4 repeated the opposition’s previous rejection of any kind of partial agreements in favor of a “comprehensive” negotiation process. But in a separate message issued on May 5 intended for the international community, the mainstream opposition parties state that they are “ready to go through a process of serious agreements that will lead us to a true political solution,” indicating an openness to partial agreements as long as they are part of a more comprehensive framework.
Policymakers in the U.S. have similarly had different reactions to the announcement. Florida politicians such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) issued statements rejecting the announcement and denouncing the new CNE. Democratic Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) issued a similar statement dismissing the new CNE as “lacking the necessary credibility” given that it was chosen by the National Assembly elected in December. On the other hand, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) issued a statement on Wednesday regarding the new CNE as “an important step towards free and fair elections in the country.” Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) expressed a similar message of support on Twitter on Friday. The Biden administration has yet to make an official statement, though Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Julie Chung reacted on Twitter stating that “it’s up to Venezuelans to decide whether the new Electoral Council contributes” to the need for free and fair elections, and that the U.S. will continue to push for further concessions from the Maduro government. Outside of the U.S., the E.U. and Spain have expressed support for the new CNE as a “first step” towards credible elections in Venezuela.
- This week, after clear efforts by the Maduro government to court the Biden administration to reconsider U.S. policy towards Venezuela, a White House official acknowledged to Reuters that Maduro is “sending signals” to the administration, but that Biden would not ease sanctions without further concessions and concrete steps towards democratic elections.
- Some actors across the political spectrum in Venezuela are reportedly considering holding a recall referendum as a peaceful and democratic way to remove Maduro from power prior to the end of his presidential term in 2024. The right to hold a recall referendum is established in the 1999 Venezuelan constitution, and to succeed would require at least half as many votes for the president’s recall than voted for Maduro in 2018, or roughly 3.1 million votes.
- Separate from the statement issued on May 4 by the Guaidó-led opposition coalition rejecting the announcement of a new CNE by the PSUV-controlled National Assembly, former presidential candidate and member of the Primero Justicia party Henrique Capriles issued a statement acknowledging the inclusion of Roberto Picón and Enrique Márquez as principal rectors as an “indispensable first step to open pathways” to a democratic reconstruction in Venezuela.
- In a presentation at the Washington Conference on the Americas on Tuesday, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) stated that recent actions by the Maduro government have created a “window of opportunity” for engagement by the U.S. government, and encouraged the Biden administration to roll back some U.S. sanctions that have aggravated the humanitarian situation.
- Following the announcement of a new CNE on Tuesday, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro issued a statement rejecting the decision as “illegitimate,” and condemning efforts by the international community to negotiate with the Maduro government.
- On May 5, in an interview with Infobae, Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno alleged that the Maduro government had a hand in provoking and financing ongoing protests in Colombia. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza quickly responded on Twitter rejecting the claims.
- On April 30, six American executives of U.S.-based oil company Citgo known as the “Citgo Six” who have been detained in Venezuela since 2017 were released to house arrest in what has widely been interpreted as a sign of good faith by the Maduro government to engage the U.S. In a closed trial in November, the U.S. citizens were handed lengthy sentences for corruption and embezzlement charges, for which the six men have maintained their innocence.
- This week, Venezuela’s Attorney General Tarek William Saab announced that the Maduro government had submitted its third report to the International Criminal Court (ICC) documenting steps taken to prosecute those guilty of human rights violations in the country. Saab provided an update on the status of the case of deceased military captain Rafael Acosta Arévalo, who he confirmed had been tortured and killed while in state custody. He announced that homicide or manslaughter cases had been opened not only in the Acosta case, but also in the case of the 2019 death of opposition figure Fernando Alban while in state custody, as well as the death of student activist Juan Pernalete, who was hit in the chest by a tear gas canister in 2017 protests.
- On May 1, Director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) David Beasley reported that the first WFP team had arrived in Venezuela. The update comes less than three weeks after it was announced that the WFP had reached a deal with the Maduro government to provide food assistance to 1.5 million children in Venezuela by the end of the 2022-2023 school year.
- A new report by Venezuelan NGO Espacio Público documents at least 390 cases and 965 violations of the freedom of expression in 2020, marking the highest number in the organization’s 19 years of reporting.
- Wednesday, May 5 marked the beginning of the first phase of implementation of Colombia’s new temporary status protection, expected to provide regular status to the more than 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants in the country for a period of 10 years. The first phase entails the self-registration of all migrants in the country online, and will last until May 28.
- A migrant encampment in Manaus, Brazil was destroyed after heavy rain caused a nearby stream to flood, displacing at least 40 Venezuelan migrants who are now being relocated to other cities in the country. Three migrants and two soldiers were injured, though the Brazilian military stated that none of the injuries were severe.
- President of the NGO Unión Venezolana en Perú Oscar Perez this week denounced a rising “campaign of xenophobia and incitement of hate” against Venezuelan migrants in Peru that surfaced on social media after it was made clear that foreign nationals in the country would be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as part of the national vaccination plan. On May 6, NGO Veneactiva reported that over 6,000 Venezuelans over the age of 60 in Peru had received the COVID vaccine.
- This week, infectious disease expert Julio Castro stated that the first shipments of vaccines purchased through the COVAX mechanism would arrive between June and July. Venezuela is expected to receive 5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from COVAX over the course of 2021.
- On Monday, Health Minister Carlos Alvarado announced that Venezuela would start conducting clinical trials of the Cuban Abdala COVID-19 vaccine this month, and that the Maduro government hopes to produce enough doses of the vaccine domestically to inoculate four million people in the country.
- On May 5, a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative announced that the first two shipments of freezing equipment to preserve COVID-19 vaccines had arrived in Venezuela. These shipments reportedly included the first 50 of 100 freezers designated to support the supply chain for COVID-19 vaccines in Venezuela.