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The E.U. handled its Venezuela observer move badly, but what else can the world do?

 Photo of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Public Security Josep Borrell.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Public Security Josep Borrell.

COMMENTARY European Union observers shouldn't legitimize a sham election in Venezuela — but the world shouldn't leave the opposition hanging there, either.

The E.U.’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell is the new villain in the struggle to re-democratize Venezuela — especially here in South Florida, where his socialist party credentials might as well be an engraved invitation to Nicolás Maduro’s Marxist book club.

Borrell badly handled his recent decision to send an E.U. observer mission to next month’s state and local elections in Venezuela, which may well be the rigged joke we expect from President Maduro’s dictatorial socialist regime. Borrell’s move — which does risk naively conferring legitimacy on a sham vote — looks even worse this week after the Financial Times revealedhe ignored his own staff’s warnings not to send observers.

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But before we burn Borrell in effigy in Doral Central Park, let’s ask the sort of question that too rarely gets posed during these heated diaspora debates:

What else exactly is Borrell — and the U.S. and the rest of the international community, for that matter — supposed to do?

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I don’t pretend to have the answer. But I ask for one key reason: Venezuela’s opposition — including Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S and some 60 other nations recognize as Venezuela’s constitutionally legitimate President — has itself decided to take part in the Nov. 21 balloting.

Is it then not in the interest of the democratic universe to get involved in some way to help level the contest, which Maduro has tilted like a 500-lb. gorilla on the store scales through media monopolization, electoral council manipulation, opposition candidate disqualification and voter intimidation? I think even Borrell’s fiercest critics would say yes. And that only brings us back to the question: what should Borrell have more smartly done (or still attempt to do) toward that end?

Even if Venezuela's election is a farce, we should want some sort of international observation there if the opposition is going to take part. Democracy Inc. shouldn’t just leave them alone on the dais.

First, let’s try to better understand why he decided to send E.U. observers in the first place. Borrell is not your typical European lefty when it comes to Latin America. Though a diehard member of Spain’s Socialist Workers Party, he isn’t known as a fawning ideological apologist for authoritarian left-wing regimes like Nicaragua’s. In fact, he’s called Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega the rank dictator he is and pushed the E.U. to sanction him.

Borrell even rejects the widely held notion among leftists (and plenty of centrists like me) that Spain’s rapacious conquistador past contributed to Latin America’s dysfunctional present. But he strongly believes the E.U. should be more engaged in Latin America – and wants Europe to help the Maduro regime and the Guaidó-led opposition reach a democratization accord in the new talks they’re holding in Mexico City, which Norway is brokering.


Among the first goals of those negotiations is making next month’s elections more transparent. They decidedly are not at the moment — and yes, Borrell probably would have done the credibility cause a much bigger favor by first sharing with Venezuela and the world what his aides told him earlier about the laughable travesty the elections are likely to be. That would have added more leverage to efforts in Mexico City to get Maduro to make the vote less of a banana-republic farce.

Then, if Maduro were to follow through with the farce anyway, the E.U. could say it at least did some semblance of due diligence before it observed the vote.

And the fact is, the world should want some sort of international observation there if the opposition is going to participate. Democracy Inc. shouldn’t just leave Guaidó and the opposition alone on the dais the night of Nov. 21 to tell the world about the electoral injustice that just occurred. It should choreograph an entity with globally weighty cachet standing alongside them saying: Yeah, we saw it too. Up close.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (left) and opposition leader Juan Guaido.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (left) and opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Anything less would weaken the moral momentum the opposition can take into Mexico City afterward as it tries to get Maduro to agree to a credible presidential election in the future. And he has to accept that before the U.S. lifts its economic sanctions against his regime, including a de facto embargo on Venezuelan oil.

So this doesn’t seem a question of whether international bodies like the E.U. should observe Venezuela’s election. It’s rather a question of how — that is, how not to leave Guaidó and the democratic opposition alone in the store under a 500-lb. gorilla.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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