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  • Human Rights Research Center

Current Electoral Challenges Threaten Human Rights and Democracy of Venezuelans

April 9, 2024

The actions of the Maduro administration have attracted so much global attention on numerous occasions these past few months that it has spotlighted Venezuela in the international law and human rights space. The forthcoming presidential elections, following the March 5 announcement of Venezuela’s national electoral authority, the National Electoral Council, will be held on July 28 this year. Subsequently, and to no surprise, Nicolas Maduro was announced the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (“PSUV”) presidential candidate with the hope of securing his third term in office. The Venezuelan Constitution imposes no term limits on candidates contesting presidential elections.


Background: Venezuela’s Less Than Credible Electoral Record

Venezuela’s electoral history embodies one of the fundamental underlying reasons there has been an intensified call for mechanisms to be put in place to ensure free and fair elections. It should be recalled that the country’s last presidential elections were rife with allegations of irregularities, illegitimacy, and fraud. This track record indicates intensifying questions as to the legitimacy of the elections coupled with declining voter participation, which have negatively impacted the credibility of elections in Venezuela. In the 2018 elections, which saw victory for Nicholas Maduro, political opponents of Nicholas Maduro raised allegations of fraud. Notably, some of the political opponents—like what has been occurring in the months preceding the 2024 elections—were barred from contesting in the election. Similar or complementary electoral irregularities predate Maduro’s entry into office and outline a trend of democratic backsliding in Venezuela.


Free and Fair Elections and International Human Rights Law Framework

The right to free and fair elections, while not exactly phrased in extant international human rights instruments, forms part and parcel of the collective of fundamental human rights of humankind. Article 21(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly states that “Everyone has a right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives”. Additionally, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) article 25(1)(a) and (b) dually enunciate the right and opportunity of every citizen to “take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives” as well as the right and opportunity “to vote and be elected at genuine periodic elections”. Additionally, Venezuela has ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, which by way of Article 23, enunciates rights regarding free and fair elections to a similar extent as enunciated in the ICCPR. It is undisputed that elections serve as one of the most explicit expressions of democracy within a country. The Inter-American Democratic Charter, formulated on the consensus of states to the protection and promotion of democracy, sets out in a binding manner that “Democracy is indispensable for the effective exercise of fundamental freedoms and human rights” within States. 

The Constitution of Venezuela by virtue of article 62 authoritatively iterates the right of all citizens to participate freely in public affairs, albeit directly or through elected representatives. What is interesting to note is that this goes a step further by explicitly identifying the positive obligation imposed on the state to ensure the protection, respect and promotion of this right, namely, “It is the obligation of the State and the duty of society to facilitate the generation of optimum conditions for putting this into practice.” Notably as well, the constitution, pursuant to article 19, enunciates that the State shall guarantee to every individual the enjoyment and exercise of human rights. Further, the subjective article goes on to state that “respect for and the guaranteeing of these rights is obligatory for the organs of Public Power” not only regarding the rights enunciated in the constitution, but the rights contained in treaties “signed and ratified by the Republic”. Moreover, pursuant to article 23, the rights contained in human rights treaties have been explicitly accorded constitutional rank. The ICCPR and ACHR have both been ratified by Venezuela. Yet, actions of the Maduro administration, which violate these rights have been excluded from being rendered null and void, as article 25 of the constitution provides.


Current Election Climate in Venezuela

Venezuela’s opposition leaders being declared ineligible and the imprisonment of Maduro’s political opponents have tarnished the legitimacy and credibility of the upcoming elections. On December 6, 2023, as Venezuela was preparing to hold its highly contentious national referendum on the annexation of Guyana’s Essequibo region, an arrest warrant was issued for over a dozen opposition leaders including Juan Guaido, former National Assembly leader. In 2019, Guaido was recognized as the lawful president of Venezuela by the U.S. and other countries globally. Many aver that the outcome of the imminent presidential elections is sealed, as President Maduro faces no serious challenges to re-election.

Opposition leader and Maduro’s main political opponent, Maria Corina Machado, who has been described as the “first real threat to Maduro in years”, has been barred from contesting in the upcoming elections. Venezuela’s highest appellate court, the Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ), temporarily lifted the disqualification imposed on some opposition leaders but upheld the ban on Machado, who was the Venezuelan primary winner, which effectively disqualifies her from contesting the July 2024 elections. The independence of the SCJ has been questioned, and has been criticized and discredited for being an instrument of the executive in the past. More troublingly, the court has upheld the 15-year ban originally imposed on Machado. This equates to Machado being ineligible to contest in the presidential elections for approximately three consecutive terms. The decision of the Maduro government in exercising its authority to administratively ban political opponents from contesting in the election has been denounced as “characteristic of authoritarian regimes”, thereby running counter to what should prevail in a democratic society. While Macahado remains ineligible to contest in the 2024 Presidential elections, the opposition party has named Corina Yoris as her alternate and Opposition presidential candidate, just days before the March 25 deadline.


The Government’s Promise of Fair Elections: The Barbados Agreement

In October 2023, Venezuelan politicians promised to hold free and fair elections and repave the country’s path to democracy. The outcome of these crucial talks was memorialized in the Barbados Agreement. There was undeniable international interest in the signing of the agreement and, more importantly, an interest in ensuring that the 2024 elections were free and fair. The event was sponsored by Mexico and Norway in their capacity as mediators and hosted by the Barbados government. The event’s international significance was emphasized by the presence of representatives from the Carter Center, the European Union, and the United Nations who acted as observers. As it pertains to the impending elections, among the checks agreed upon was the recognition of a party’s right to choose a candidate freely, which is an implicit conformation with articles 25 and 23 of the ICCPR and ACHR respectively. Additionally, an agreement was reached to take steps to reverse government decisions which barred political opponents from running for office. Furthermore, the credibility of the elections was to be buttressed by inviting international electoral observers from the EU, Carter Center, UN, and other groups. Discrediting opposition leader Machado’s victory in the presidential primary in October runs contrary to the good faith obligations under the Barbados Agreement.

Iterating the Call for Free and Fair Elections

The government of Venezuela is therefore called upon to act in conformity with its obligations made in good faith, in promotion of international human rights standards, and equally importantly in accordance with the provisions of its own constitution to ensure that the people of Venezuela can vote in a free and fair election. The right of Venezuelan citizens to participate in public affairs, which necessarily imputes the right to free and fair elections and serves as the means of electing representatives have been unlawfully trampled upon and violated. The government of Venezuela, not just under international human rights law standards but also under its own constitutional dictates, has taken actions which raise concern regarding citizens’ right to participate freely in public affairs, albeit directly or through elected representatives.


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