The opposition coalition decided to participate in the local elections monitored by international observers on November 21. But recent months show the reconciliation and democratic process, entrenched in international politics, is still a long road in Venezuela.
On November 14, the government of Venezuela claimed to have neutralized “terrorists attacks against National Electoral Council facilities which were intended to prevent the elections of November 21“.
The ministry of interior then declared that four individuals were apprehended on November 12 with improvised explosive devices and jerrycans of gasoline before they were able to sabotage the elections.
The group would have allegedly been also behind another attempt of sabotage during the 2020 legislative elections. They were all linked to a William Ricardo Sánchez Ramos, alleged financier and coordinator of the operation while living in Spain.
Authorities also mentioned William Ramos would be connected to Ivan Simonovis and Leopoldo López, two political opponents of Venezuela’s dictatorship who “finance these terrorist cells“.
Ivan Simonovis is a former political prisoner who escaped from Venezuela and has been living in the United States. Leopoldo López is one of the most influential political opponents of Maduro regime who fled to Spain in 2020. Leopoldo López is close to Juan Guaidó, the head of the Unitary Platform, a cross-societal opposition coalition supported by the U.S.
Calls for Spain to extradite opponents
Nicolás Maduro said he would ask Spain to arrest and extradite the head of the alleged “terrorist attack” and “leader of the terrorist group“.
While the veracity of the dismantled plot is unsure, accusations of terrorism against political opponents came only a week before local elections in which the opposition coalition participates after being absent from the two previous elections.
But it also comes only two days after Spain accepted the extradition of Adrián Velásquez, the former head of security of Hugo Chavez, to the U.S.
And recent extraditions to the U.S. put Venezuela on edge.
A billion-dollar corruption scheme involving Venezuela’s goverment
On October 14, Spain also allowed the extradition of Adrián Velásquez’s wife, Claudia Diaz, to the U.S. A former nurse of Hugo Chávez from 2003 to 2011, she was also the National Treasurer of Venezuela between 2011 and 2013.
The couple was arrested in December 2020 at the request of the United States but they had already been arrested in 2018 for corruption and money laundering charges at the request of Venezuela after their names appeared in the Panama Papers scandal. Spain had refused their extradition because of concerns over their safety and “possible violation of fundamental rights” if they were sent to Venezuela.
The two Venezuelans are charged for being part of a corruption and money laundering scheme involving the businessman Raúl Gorrín Belisario.
They are suspected of having taken advantage of Venezuela’s government-controlled exchange rate, under which U.S. dollars could be traded at a favorable rate.
According to the U.S. District Court of Southern Florida indictment, Raúl Gorrín Belisario would have “paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to secure the rights to engage in over $1 billion in foreign currency exchange transactions that resulted in profit of hundreds of millions of dollars” from 2008 to 2017.
Through her husband, Belisario would have bribed Claudia Diaz for approximately $65 million between 2011 and 2013 with wire transfers to Swiss bank accounts, yachts, luxury watches, mansions or a designer fashion line in the U.S.
Spain also investigates the purchase of a €1.8 million property in the center of Madrid coming from Swiss funds.
Claudia Diaz’s predecessor at the National Treasury of Venezuela, Alejandro Andrade, pleaded guilty of currency exchange and money laundering scheme. He was sentenced to 10 years of prison and forfeiture of all his assets involved in the corrupt scheme. He received over $1 billion in bribes.
But in mid-October another extradition infuriated Maduro regime.
Alex Saab extradited to the United States
On October 16, Alex Saab, a Colombia-born businessman accused a similar illegal bribery scheme, was extradited to the U.S. He was arrested in Cape Verde in June 2020 during a fuel stop between Iran and Venezuela.
Alex Saab is accused with another Colombian businessman, Alvaro Pulido Vargas a.k.a. German Enrique Rubio Salas, to have obtained a contract with the Venezuelan government in November 2011 to build low-income housing units.
He then allegedly took advantage of the government’s exchange rate program and would bribe government officials to approve import documents for goods and materials whereas he never imported them.
The U.S. Department of Justice claims Saab and Pulido transferred approximately $350 million out of Venezuela to U.S. bank accounts.
Two weeks ago, seven of the 8 charges against Alex Saab were dismissed and on November 15, Alex Saab pleaded not guilty on money laundering charges while his lawyer presented him as a “diplomat of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela“.
On October 21, Alvaro Pulido Varga was also indicted along with 4 other individuals for having obtained contracts to import and distribute boxes of food and medicine at inflated costs, to pay bribes and enrich themselves. Approximately $1.6 billion were received from the Republic of Venezuela, and $180 million transferred to U.S. bank accounts.
End of discussions with the opposition after the extradition of Alex Saab
While the U.S. downplayed the political impact of the extradition, justifying their justice systems was totally independent from political considerations, Venezuela has quickly responded to the extradition.
Maduro regime claims Alex Saab was illegally arrested and detained because he is a representative of Venezuela.
Few hours after Alex Saab’s extradition, Venezuela put in jail 5 U.S. and a national executives of an oil company, previously subject to a house arrest.
Moreover, Venezuela decided to stop the negotiations with the opposition coalition.
In August, the government of Venezuela and the Unitary Platform of Venezuela, a newly-formed opposition coalition led by Juan Guaidó, had decided to enter into negotiations on an agreement to secure an integrated solution to the crisis in the country.
With over 5.4 million Venezuelans escaping their country since 2015, they account for the second largest forced human migration in the world after the one caused by the Syrian civil war.
And the discussions overseen by Norway happening in Mexico City had brought some hopes of progress ahead of the provincial, local council and municipal elections.
Participation of an opposition coalition to the local 2021 elections
In April, the National Electoral Council rehabilitated the Democratic Unity Roundtable as a national political party.
And in late August, with the support of the Unitary Platform, the Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition was able to announce its intention to participate in the elections on November 21.
The coalition of opposition political parties didn’t participate in the legislative elections in 2020 nor in the presidential elections in 2018.
The opposition wanted to have international observers of the elections.
And as such, the European Union will have up to 100 observers in Venezuela in order assess the process of the elections for the first time in Venezuela since 2006. The Carter Center also sent a limited international electoral expert mission to Caracas to assess key aspects of the electoral process.
The European Union observation team and the Carter Center will publish their reports and recommendations few weeks after the elections.
As discussions made progress, Peru had welcomed the “call of fair, free and democratic elections“ in Venezuela in September.
And the future of the Lima Group, a consortium of American countries formed in Peru’s capital meant to overcome the institutional crisis in Venezuela, started to be questioned after that Argentina left or that Mexico recognized Maduro regime as legitimate.
But Venezuela decided to halt discussions after the extradition of Alex Saab. “We blame the [Colombian] goverment of Iván Duque, the United States and the irrational Venezuelan far-right like Leopoldo López, Juan Guaidó, Carlos Paparoni for the end of the conversations“, declared the head of the negotiation team on Maduro’s side.
An online surveillance team during the election campaign
When the electoral campaign started, the minister of Communications of Venezuela announced they wanted to create a “surveillance team” on social media.
Without providing operational details, he “invited social media companies to maintain a balance in information, in order to offer equal coverage and similar treatment of messages coming from the candidates and their organizations“, which could be seen as a way to control freedom of speech in a country that only scores 28/100 on the Freedom on the Net report.
On November 11, a day before the alleged terrorist attacks were dismantled, the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken considered that the “Maduro regime continues to deny people’s right to choose their own leaders“.
In September, the President of Colombia, and strong adversary of Nicolás Maduro, remained skeptical about the discussions until there would be “free and transparent” presidential elections.
The next presidential elections in Venezuela will on 2024, with still a long road ahead for reconciliation and democracy.