Venezuela's President Wins Boycotted Elections Amid Fraud Charges

May 21, 2018
Originally published on May 23, 2018 7:18 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's turn to the news overnight from Venezuela. President Nicolas Maduro has declared victory in his re-election bid. But the challenge to his leadership is clearly not over. Maduro's opponents are calling his victory illegitimate. Outside observers agree, including the Trump administration, which is threatening new sanctions against Venezuela. So how would that impact a country that has already been dealing with economic collapse? And how exactly did its socialist leader come to reclaim the presidency amid widespread hunger and a refugee crisis? Let's turn to NPR's Philip Reeves, who joins us from Caracas.

Hi, Phil.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

GREENE: So why is this election outcome so in dispute right now?

REEVES: Well, specifically, because of the way the government tried to pressure people into voting for Maduro. It set up little red tents, in some cases right by polling stations. Officials at these tents were asking people to hand over a benefits card that they have. It's called the Fatherland Card. A lot of Venezuelans, particularly the poor, have these. They're used for tracking food handouts. And during his campaign, Maduro had said there'll be a big prize for voting. Officials were scanning this card with their cellphones. And people had the impression that they'd win something if they voted for Maduro, money perhaps.

GREENE: That sounds like a bribe in many ways. I mean, that sounds like the government's not being subtle at all about this.

REEVES: Well, the main challenger to Maduro, ex-governor Henri Falcon, would certainly agree with that. He says he received hundreds of complaints about it. And that's one reason why he says he refuses to recognize the result.

But, you know, there's a bigger picture here in this election. In the run-up to the election, the government increased food handouts, stocked stores. It controls most of the media and used that. Its electoral board is government controlled. And it banned the two most prominent opposition leaders from running, which is - you know, these are just some of the reasons why the U.S. and some major Latin American countries have been saying for a long time that this isn't free and fair. And that's why they're not recognizing the result.

GREENE: OK. So a couple of questions about what's next here - the U.S. is saying not only they're not going to recognize a result but they want to maybe impose new sanctions that would directly target corrupt regime officials like the president but not target the people of Venezuela. Is that possible?

REEVES: Well, it depends on what the sanctions are. And so far, you know, while certainly biting, sanctions haven't brought about a change of behavior. There are concerns that if the U.S. was to extend sanctions into the oil sector, overwhelmingly the source of Venezuela's foreign revenues, this could make the humanitarian crisis notably worse. So it's a difficult tool to apply, especially given the state of the situation here. I mean, you know, you've got hyperinflation pitched to be - expected to be 13,000 percent this year.

GREENE: Wow.

REEVES: Basic infrastructure is crumbling. People spend hours every day lining up at banks to get out tiny amounts of cash. David, I saw people paying with a banker's card at kiosks for a single cigarette because of such a dire shortage of cash.

GREENE: That's amazing. Well, what - and the other question I have, Phil - if you're the opposition now, anything you can do to challenge Maduro now that this election is over?

REEVES: Well, the opposition has been divided. It's been lacking leadership. Venezuelans seem totally exhausted and disillusioned. And they've lost faith in them. Now they will be making an effort to unify, start a fresh campaign to pressure Maduro. And the other thing to watch here is the military. Historically, it's a central player in all of this. There's growing evidence of dissent within the ranks.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Philip Reeves reporting from Caracas, Venezuela.

Phil, we appreciate it.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.