CARACAS — On July 17, over seven million Venezuelan citizens queued up at polling sites across the country and around the world to vote in a Venezuelan referendum. The referendum was organized and carried out by Venezuelan opposition parties, and the results showed that more than 98 percent of Venezuelan voters were opposed to Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro’s plans to elect a special assembly that would rewrite the Venezuelan constitution to give the president more power. The vote was ultimately deemed irrelevant by President Maduro.
The majority of people who voted in this referendum see President Maduro’s special assembly election as a way for him to gain more power, and to undermine Venezuelan democracy. In the hours and days that followed the vote, opposition leaders issued a list of demands to hold the Venezuelan government accountable and held a strike on Thursday to further demonstrate their opposition to President Maduro.
The tumultuous saga of this Venezuelan referendum and the events that followed are indicative of a larger story about the South American nation, a story that has been playing out over the course of the last few years.
For decades, Venezuela benefited from high oil prices, giving its socialist government the means to distribute massive amounts of wealth to poor populations. But in 2014, oil prices took a nose dive—a fatal blow for a country with an economy that relies almost exclusively on oil exports.
In the following years, the economy stagnated, inflation skyrocketed and there were mass shortages of food and medicine. Many people who were once solid middle-class lives began living on one meal a day, if that. By 2016, the poverty rate was at a whopping 81 percent.
As the Venezuelan economy continues to collapse, Venezuela’s democratic rule of law is following suit. President Maduro has been widely accused of severely curbing democratic norms in Venezuela, and he’s taken away large swaths of power from the Venezuelan National Assembly, which is run by opposition parties.
This political instability, married with the already present economic uncertainty, is a recipe for disaster. The dire straits of Venezuelan people living in poverty will only worsen if the country does not get back on a consistent track, both democratically and economically.
If the Venezuelan referendum is any indication, people are beginning to understand this. Venezuelan citizens have taken to the streets to protest, trying to prevent their government from falling into autocracy. The Organization of American States called for Venezuela to ensure “the full restoration of democratic order,” by restoring “full constitutional authority to the National Assembly,” supporting “measures to return to democratic order,” and to “undertake as necessary further diplomatic initiatives.”
In a statement, the White House reiterated their commitment to “free and fair elections” in Venezuela that would restore the country to a “full and prosperous democracy.”
News about the Venezuelan referendum serves as an important reminder that Venezuelan development and the well-being of Venezuelan citizens are inextricably tied to not only the economic stability of the country, but also the democratic stability.
The efforts of the international community to pressure Venezuela into holding free and fair elections are vital to sustainable, prosperous Venezuelan development.
– Adesuwa Agbonile