The incident came at an inopportune moment for President Maduro: on Wednesday, only days before the controversial premature presidential elections on 20 May, a riot staged by the predominantly political prisoners in the detention centre Helicoide in Caracas has again put the spotlight on the autocratic tendencies of the Venezuelan government. Inmates have disseminated messages on social media that denounced torture and extortion committed by the authorities. Furthermore, the US embassy has declared that it would hold the government responsible for any harm dealt to US citizens among the prisoners, a further deterioration in the highly strained US-Venezuelan relations.

Already on Monday, several European, North and Latin American countries demanded that Venezuelan President and candidate Nicolás Maduro suspend the elections, which they regard as illegitimate. The USA is contemplating further sanctions on Venezuela, particularly on its oil industry, while the option of a military intervention is being discussed more openly among hard-line officials in Washington, DC.

If the upcoming elections cement the status quo in Venezuela, the country will continue to be a substantial source of instability for the entire region.”

However, there is little doubt that Maduro will follow through and likely emerge victorious from the elections. As the most popular oppositional leaders are in jail, under house arrest or barred from running, the main opposition coalition is calling for a boycott of the vote. Although some polls see candidate Henri Falcón in the lead, critics believe that Maduro will use his usual bag of tricks, such as voter intimidation and manipulation, an electoral system rigged in his favour and political institutions loyal to him, that helped the ruling party achieve victories in the latest gubernatorial and mayoral elections.

Maduro’s main concern, however, is voter turnout. Large parts of the population consider abstaining from the polls the only option left to express their disapproval. Demonstrations against the government and the deplorable conditions in Venezuela, foremost the ever increasing scarcity of basic goods and out-of-control inflation, have been increasing steadily in recent months, and could culminate in electoral violence as seen in the last wave of civil unrest in early 2017. But attendance at these manifestations has been far lower compared to previous years, indicating the fear of the people of a violent response from the national police and pro-government armed groups.

More and more Venezuelans see emigration as their last resort. According to estimates, already 1.6 million citizens have left the country since 2015; if the current tendencies continues, Venezuela will have lost 10 per cent of its population by the end of 2018. This mass exodus is taking its toll on the destination countries, foremost Colombia and Brazil, but also Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay, where the influx of migrants has led to higher crime rates and social tensions. If the upcoming elections cement the status quo in Venezuela, the country will continue to be a substantial source of instability for the entire region.

Photo credit: AgenciaAndes | License: Creative Commons

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