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Venezuela's predictable elections herald an uncertain future

Venezuelans will go to the polls on Sunday, Nicolás Maduro will complete his takeover of the last opposition-held body, and much of the world will refuse to recognize the results.

The big picture: The U.S. and dozens of other countries have backed an opposition boycott of the National Assembly elections on the grounds that — given Maduro's tactics (like tying jobs and welfare benefits to voting), track record, and control of the National Electoral Council — they will be neither free nor fair.

But that doesn't mean they don't matter.

  • Juan Guaidó is recognized by over 50 countries as Venezuela’s interim president, but it was his role as National Assembly president that put him in the line of succession. That mandate is set to expire on Jan. 5.
  • The U.S. and other allied governments say they'll continue to recognize Guaidó, but he no longer mobilizes enthusiastic support domestically or internationally. European countries seem to be quietly distancing themselves.
  • As the embattled opposition leader approaches his second anniversary as interim president, Maduro is consolidating his hold on the presidential palace.

"It's not surprising that people have lost faith in an entity that calls itself a government but can't govern," says Phil Gunson of the International Crisis Group.

  • The opposition has grown bitterly divided, including over whether to participate in elections overseen by the Maduro regime.
  • Venezuelans still take to the streets, but mostly to protest shortages of essential goods like cooking oil, Gunson says.

Venezuela's economic and humanitarian crisis has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

  • Once relatively prosperous, Venezuela now faces food shortages on the scale of Afghanistan or Yemen. Upward of 5 million people have emigrated during the crisis, many to neighboring countries like Colombia.
  • The IMF projects that by next year, Venezuela's GDP will have shriveled to 17% of what it was when Maduro took office in 2013, per Caracas Wire.

Maduro blames U.S. sanctions. The U.S. blames his government’s incompetence and corruption.

  • The government recently raided a charity that feeds tens of thousands of hungry children, accusing it of conspiring with foreigners.
  • “After crushing opposition parties, [Maduro’s] campaign of repression is increasingly targeting independent civil organizations trying to alleviate the crisis,” the NYT notes.

What's next: President-elect Biden calls Maduro a “dictator,” but he and close aides have also criticized the Trump administration for exerting “maximum pressure” with limited results.

  • Trump’s envoy to Iran and Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, told Reuters on Thursday that he was concerned that Biden might ease up on sanctions.

Flashback: The U.S.-backed push for regime change was based on the idea that, under sufficient pressure, Maduro's inner circle would fracture, key elements of the military would defect, and Guaidó would ride the popular will into the presidency.

  • Instead, it is the opposition that has crumbled.

What to watch: Given those circumstances, argues Michael Penfold of Venezuela's Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administración, sanctions relief and possibly immunity from criminal charges will have to be on the table in negotiations in order to get the regime to budge.

  • But Penfold worries that the politics in Washington and among anti-Maduro voters in Florida will make it difficult to change course. "We know the policies don't work, but they're going to be difficult to change."

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