It seems that Venezuela doesn’t exist for the U.S. presidential candidates. Neither party’s hopefuls mention the South American nation during political debates, and though Venezuelan activists are battling to expand democracy and human rights protections, no U.S. candidate has presented a plan to support their efforts.
Understandably, the candidates are focused on the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the Islamic State group’s threats against the U.S. But as Venezuela gears up for a parliamentary election on Dec. 6, American politicians and people should be aware of the major challenges people are facing there.
While polls suggest that the opposition could win a majority in the National Assembly for the first time in 16 years, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s administration has refused to allow international observers monitor the election. This is, of course, deeply troubling, since Maduro’s government controls the agency that counts the ballots.
Already the president has signaled that no matter what, the right party will win. Maduro even declared a few weeks ago that in the event that the opposition won control of the assembly, “under no circumstances would I surrender our revolution,” and noted that in that “hypothetical” situation, he would just “govern the people in a civilian-military alliance.”
Despite these declarations, the Venezuelan opposition hasn’t lost hope. Politicians continue to campaign and spread their message, knowing that real change can occur only if they manage to capture the assembly—somehow.
Unfortunately for them, this is a huge mountain to climb. Maduro—like his late predecessor, Hugo Chávez—has no experience in power-sharing. He is a strongman, and that’s the only political style he’s familiar with.
Meanwhile, a full-blown crisis of governability continues to affect Venezuelans’ daily lives: The country has the highest inflation rate on the continent; crime rates rival those of a war zone; and the political classes continue to be thoroughly corrupt. In fact, just a few weeks ago, two members of Maduro’s family were arrested in Haiti and flown to the U.S. The men, nephews of first lady Cilia Flores, were charged with conspiring to bring 1,760 pounds of cocaine to the U.S. Of course, Maduro’s administration censored the news in Venezuela and painted the arrests as just another attack from the empire up north.
In addition, Venezuela is growing more isolated. Cuba, its historical ally, recently resumed diplomatic relations with the U.S., apparently without the blessing of Caracas. And falling oil prices have greatly affected Venezuela’s standing in global matters and hindered the government’s ability to hand out aid to the nation’s most impoverished areas, where the administration’s electoral base lives.
But while the regional influence that Chavez enjoyed for many years has been lost, Venezuela’s authoritarian structure is still very much in place. Many of Maduro’s most influential opponents are either locked in prison or living in exile. For instance, despite international pressure to release him, opposition leader Leopoldo López has been imprisoned for more than a year after being sentenced to 13 years for allegedly instigating a rebellion.
A prosecutor in the case against López, Franklin Nieves, fled Venezuela for the U.S. earlier this year and has said that the Maduro administration pressured him to fabricate charges against López and threatened to jail him if he refused. It was all a “farce,” Nieves has admitted. And while the National Assembly could take up legislation that would free López, for now it’s completely controlled by politicians allied with the Maduro administration.
Sadly, while all of this tumult is happening in Venezuela, presidential candidates in the U.S. have remained silent about the situation there. Their attention rarely turns to matters south of the border.
This is nothing new, of course: Both President George W. Bush and President Obama promised during their respective campaigns that they intended to make Latin America a priority of their foreign policy, but the results have been mixed.
The fact is that only Venezuelans can change Venezuela, and the nation will have a momentous chance to start on December 6. But they will need our support. All of our support.
Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the host of Fusion’s new television news show, “America With Jorge Ramos,” and is a news anchor on the Univision Network. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of nine best-selling books, most recently, “A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto.”