Venezuela Constituent Assembly elections held despite warnings from Trump
Venezuelan President Maduro's support for a popular assembly to debate a new constitution is a move in the direction of democracy that his supporters have said would never happen in the United States. | John Minchillo/AP

In spite of threats from the Trump administration and sometimes violent demonstrations and a boycott by the right wing opposition, the scheduled elections for Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly were held Sunday, July 30.

Just after midnight, the head of the National Elections Commission, Tibisay Lucena, announced that 8,089,320 Venezuelans had voted.  This represents 41.53 percent of the 19 million eligible voters in this country of nearly 32 million.

This may seem unimpressive but, considering the boycott, was a fairly good turnout. Last week the opposition carried out an unrecognized “plebiscite, in opposition to Sunday’s elections, in which 7.2 million people supposedly voted.  The July 16 “plebiscite” was marred by bizarre irregularities. Unlike Sunday’s vote, the ballot was not secret, there was no check on the possibility of the same individual voting multiple times, and to top it off, all the ballots and election materials were burned immediately after the vote.  Even outside election observers called in by the opposition raised serious questions.

Opposition figures claimed that not 41.53 percent, but only about 12 percent of Venezuelans voted in the Sunday election.  This was parroted uncritically by media in the United States.  The opposition also claimed that public presence at the polls was sparse, in spite of video and photographic evidence showing huge throngs lined up to vote at some polling places.

In the several days before the Sunday vote, and on Sunday itself, the opposition tried to create a situation of instability that would discourage turnout or even make the vote impossible.  A call for a national strike by businesses appears to have flopped.   But there was an uptick in the violence that the opposition has been fomenting since April.  On Saturday, a “Bolivarian” (i.e. pro-government) candidate for one of the Constituent Assembly seats, José Felix Pineda, was murdered in his home in Ciudad Bolivar, by parties as yet not apprehended.

There were several more deaths in the days immediately before the election. On Election Day, in the upscale Chacao neighborhood of Caracas, an opposition stronghold, someone exploded a bomb in the path of a group of motorcycle-riding National Guardsmen, injuring eight of them, none seriously.  As always, foreign media failed to report the fact that most of the dead and injured have been government supporters, police and military personnel, or bystanders.

Before the vote, U.S. President Donald Trump had demanded that the plans for a Constituent Assembly be cancelled, and slapped economic sanctions on thirteen top Venezuelan officials, including Lucena of the Elections Council.  He threatened to apply even harsher sanctions if the vote was not stopped.  As of writing, new U.S. sanctions had not been announced, but may include restrictions on refining Venezuelan crude oil in U.S. refineries for shipment back to Venezuela.

International reactions to the Venezuelan situation could largely be predicted by the political nature of the governments in question.  Last week, the government of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced that it would impose sanctions on the same Venezuelan officials who were sanctioned by Trump.

This caused indignation among the large progressive and left wing section of the Mexican body politic.  Among the many voicing disgust with the Mexican government’s policy were the rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Pablo González Casanova, and former Mexico City Mayor (technically, governor of the Federal District) Cuauhtémoc Cardenas.  Cardenas voiced the thoughts of many of his countrymen in an op-ed entitled “Once Again, Ignominy and Submission by the Mexican Government.” Cárdenas accused the government of simply knuckling under to the U.S. president, and giving up completely Mexico’s former tradition of not interfering in the internal affairs of its sister Latin American republics.  He added, “Those in Mexico who seek complete adherence to the rule of law, the observance of international agreements, and respect for rights enshrined in the United Nations charter, and corresponding ones at the continental level, demand that the Mexican government apologize to the Venezuelan government and people, as well as to Latin American and international communities, for this lamentable of our own laws and principles….”.

Cardenas did not say, but many no doubt are wondering, if México’s strange attitude has anything to do with Donald Trump’s demands that NAFTA be renegotiated in ways that may hurt Mexico’s economy, or his threats against Mexican immigrants living in the United States.

The Bolivian, Cuban and Nicaraguan governments, however, immediately recognized the Venezuelan vote.

Other countries that condemned the Constituent Assembly vote include reliably right wing governments in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Costa Rica, plus Chile.  All but Chile have worse human rights records and more dubious democratic credentials than Venezuela does, and this applies to Trump’s United States of America also, where vote suppression efforts are in full swing and civil liberties are in the cross-hairs.

Why the government of Chile, headed by Michelle Bachelet of the Socialist Party, has lent its name to this charade is not explained. But the Communist Party of Chile, a coalition partner in the government, has strongly denounced outside interference and supports Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly.

The Constituent Assembly’s 545 members will immediately take up the task of reviewing the country’s constitution and laws, and enacting changes they feel will help get the country out of its current political and economic difficulties.  Some supporters of the government, including the Communist Party and environmentalist groups,  are hoping the new body can push the country in the direction of more direct participatory democracy, and get it out of a chronic situation which long preceded the coming to power of President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, of excessive dependence on the sale of oil to raise revenues and also on the importation of many articles that theoretically could be produced by Venezuela itself.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.