When Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, was sworn in for his second term, absences were felt. Absent were representatives from the United States, European Union, and Lima Group. These countries refused to celebrate or, in the case of the Lima Group, to even acknowledge the legitimacy of Madura’s reelection. The rationality behind their decision is simple: the reelection of Nicolas Maduro was fraudulent and colored by the controversial ‘democratic’ leader’s stealth authoritarianism.
While there is a myriad of stealth-authoritarian factors involved in Maduro’s reelection, this post will focus mostly on two prominent factors: opposition suppression and coercion carried out by Mr. Maduro’s government. Let’s examine first the case of the man considered Maduro’s greatest political opponent at the time of this election, Leopoldo Lopez. On the day of Mr. Maduro’s election, Leopoldo Lopez dealt with incarceration. He had been arrested in February 2014 on charges of inciting violence during an anti-government protest despite the fact that Mr. Lopez was not even present when violence broke out. The nature of his arrest aroused suspicion for obvious reasons, as “prosecutors acknowledged that López was technically peaceful, but [still] accused him of inciting others to hatred and violence” (Neuman 2015). Suspicion was further aroused by the history of Venezuelan courts, which “have long been criticized for a lack of independence” and making “-decisions (…) closely hewed to the dictates of the governing party under President Nicolás Maduro” (Neuman 2015). Thus, it is clear, as the critics have noted, that “-the trial was politically motivated and lacked basic guarantees of due process,” as evidenced by the fact that the defendant was unable to call witnesses or even present evidence (Neuman 2015). It is even further suggested when we consider the attacks on Mr. Lopez’ character by Mr. Maduro in his political speeches where he refers to his opponent as a ‘monster’ (Neuman 2015).
There is clearly stealth authoritarianism inherent in Mr. Lopez’ incarceration, as Mr. Maduro utilizes legal mechanisms within the criminal justice system in a way that blurs the line between abuse and legitimate use. The charges brought against Mr. Lopez by the state are blatantly stretching the legal definition of inciting violence in order to bring punishment down on a political opponent of Nicolas Maduro. When we consider the infamous lack of independence within the courts, it’s reasonable to accuse Mr. Maduro of having non-political charges brought against a political opponent so as to secure his reelection. For it is by bringing these charges about in this way that Maduro is able to suppress an opponent while masking it all beneath the sleek veneer of democratic ‘justice,’ allowing him to hide his authoritarian actions behind a shadow of a doubt.
Turning to the coercion used by Mr. Maduro during this election, we find a disgusting example in the case of Fatherland Cards. These Fatherland Cards were registered by representatives of Mr. Maduro’s party to track which citizens voted while also promising “-aid and government subsidized food handouts if he was re-elected” (Herrero and Specia 2019). The stealth authoritarianism behind this electoral practice is clearly meant to raise the costs of unseating Maduro. He took advantage of the fact that these cards are indispensable in the current economic crisis Venezuela is faced with, as well as his people’s struggle with lack of food, in order to create a situation linking unseating him with literal starvation. This use of Fatherland Cards in the electoral process by Maduro is a masked abuse of both democratic social policy and electoral procedure, manipulating the fact that the cards are also a form of identification in order to give some kind of legitimacy to their use in the voting process. He masks the fact that he is holding constituents hostage by the threat of starvation by implying that it is all campaign promises and electoral procedure.
Hence, it is no wonder that Nicolas Maduro, one of the most criticized ‘democratic’ leaders in the world somehow managed to gain a second term in a country he has arguably ruined. He masked his abuses of democratic legal and electoral procedures behind a facade of legitimate use. As a result, Venezuela will continue to suffer from him and his thinly veiled abuses.