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Opposition Triumphs in Venezuela, But Hold the Champagne

In elections on December 6th, Venezuela’s democratic opposition won a supermajority—112 of 167 seats in the legislature, the election authority has confirmed. The opposition won 109 seats, and three other elected members from indigenous parties will ally with them.

The truism that democracy does not depend only on what happens on election day usually casts doubt on exercises that confirm autocrats and dictators in power. The election result raises a different problem. The election wasn’t free and fair. Political opposition figures were jailed, violence was a constant threat, and the regime has strangled the independent media. The opposition triumphed anyway. What happens when the opposition scores big gains but still doesn’t win control of the executive?

Of course, the Venezuelan opposition’s problem is one that lots of other democracy movements from Russia to China would like to have. Nevertheless, it comes with its own troubles. “A tyranny continues to be a tyranny despite holding election,” as Moisés Naím wrote, “even if it allows itself to occasionally lose them.” In advance of the election, President Nicolás Maduro as much as vowed to go around the legislature if necessary. Since election day, the ruling party’s Twitter feed has sent out images of Stalin and Lenin, and Maduro himself has been casting the opposition as “counterrevolutionaries.”

He may be counting on the international spotlight to move elsewhere before he truly turns his attention to thwarting the opposition. In the meantime, the last thing the US should do is reward the Maduro government. That appears to be what the Obama administration is doing in Burma following the democratic opposition’s victory there: It recently trotted out a “workaround” for sanctions so as to allow American trade and investment to use a port owned by a top crony of the military-dominated government linked to drug trafficking. Also, a top American general, in a briefing for reporters most certainly approved by the White House, hopes the administration will give the go-ahead for closer ties with Burma’s military comes soon, even though Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, who won elections there in November, do not have control over the military or security ministries.

In both Burma and Venezuela, the administration should be focusing on what makes a dictatorial regime give way, peacefully, according to the clear mandate for democratic change given by their citizens. In neither case should they undermine democrats by rushing ahead as though their struggle has been won. That seems to be the view of two leading members of Congress, Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They will have to make that case more assertively if the US is to help these transitions succeed.

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