Venezuela’s chief prosecutor accused several leading opposition figures of treason and ordered their arrests on Wednesday, the latest blow to the prospects of credible elections that the government has agreed to hold next year in exchange for the revocation of the crippling US economic sanctions.
Attorney General Tarek William Saab said opponents of the left-wing government accepted money from ExxonMobil to sabotage President Nicolás Maduro’s recent referendum on the annexation of a vast oil-rich region in Guyana. The oil company could not immediately be reached for comment.
Mr Saab did not say what the accused had actually done to hinder the referendum, but said they would be charged with treason, conspiracy, money laundering and criminal conspiracy. He announced arrest warrants for 15 people, including some prominent opposition members, including people living abroad and two US citizens.
The Biden administration has been trying to convince Venezuela to hold elections by easing some of America’s harmful sanctions. In October, the government reached an agreement with the opposition on steps towards the vote, and last week agreed that candidates barred from running could appeal that sanction to the country’s highest court.
But the Maduro government has also repeatedly undermined the opposition’s ability to mount a meaningful challenge.
More than 2.4 million Venezuelans voted in October in opposition primaries for president, which took place without official government support. Since then, the government has questioned the legitimacy of the primaries, legally targeted its organizers and barred the primary winner, María Corina Machado, from running for 15 years, claiming she had not completed her assets and income declaration when he was a legislator. Three of those whom Mr. Saab indicted on Wednesday are members of Ms. Machado’s political party who live in Venezuela.
Since Maduro took power in 2013, following the death of Hugo Chávez, the combination of growing oppression, rampant corruption and sanctions has made life much more difficult for ordinary Venezuelans, and millions of people have left the country. Under Maduro, international observers have called the country’s elections illegitimate.
With accusations of treason, President Biden must decide whether to continue to bet that sanctions relief will convince Maduro to allow a real vote, said Geoff Ramsey, senior Venezuela fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“I think Maduro is really forcing Biden’s hand here,” he said. “It is now clear that he cannot win free and fair elections, so he needs Washington to lift sanctions to justify a crackdown that allows the regime to return to the status quo.”
Venezuela held a referendum on Sunday, supported by Maduro, on whether to annex Guyana’s Essequibo region. Maduro has interpreted the issue as a fight with ExxonMobil, the American oil company that has a deal with the Guyana government. His critics argue that the vote was nothing more than an attempt to divert attention from his political problems by stoking nationalist fervor.
The government reported a favorable vote of over 95%. Although political analysts, social media users and New York Times journalists reported low voter turnout, the government said it was a massive turnout, with 10.5 million votes cast.
“With the vote numbers inflated, they have become a joke,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior researcher for Latin America at Chatham House, an international affairs research group in London. “It really seems like things are falling apart.”
The Essequibo region, with immense mineral and oil wealth but few inhabitants, is almost the size of Florida and occupies almost three-quarters of Guyana’s total administered area. Venezuela and Britain both claimed it in the 19th century, and the dispute has continued since Guyana gained independence from Britain in 1966. The matter is being heard by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
At the same time as Saab was holding his press conference, Ms Machado, a former centre-right lawmaker, was holding one at her party headquarters in Caracas, saying the referendum had damaged the electoral authority’s credibility.
As news of the charges and arrest orders spread on social media and in the room where Ms. Machado was speaking, her assistant pulled her campaign chief off the stage and whispered in her ear. Later, another party leader took to the stage to say that they were waiting for a formal notification from the attorney general.
The three accused party members left the premises without making any statements. They are the coordinator of international relations, Pedro Urruchurtu; the political coordinator, Henry Alviarez, and the communications coordinator, Claudia Macero.
The Americans accused by Saab are Damian Merlo, a consultant who advised the authoritarian president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele; and Savoy Jandon Wright. Mr. Saab provided no information about Mr. Wright, except that he had already been imprinted in Venezuela.