CARACAS, VENEZUELA —
The Venezuelan government's decision to plow ahead with early presidential elections over the objections of the opposition risks spurring more international sanctions and exacerbating an economic and social crisis driving increasing numbers of Venezuelans into exile, analysts said Thursday.
Opposition politicians were meeting the day after officials announced the April 22 vote, deciding whether to challenge socialist President Nicolas Maduro in an election that several foreign nations have already vowed not to recognize — or to boycott it.
They accuse Maduro's government of rigging recent elections and making a fair race impossible, in part by barring the most popular opposition parties and candidates.
Once among Latin America's wealthiest countries, oil-rich Venezuela is in a deepening crisis marked by soaring inflation and food shortages.
But analysts say massive street protests are unlikely to re-ignite because many were frightened by the government's brutal response to unrest last year. They say people are more inclined to abandon their native country than risk jail or death.
The real pressure driving change could come from the United States and possibly European nations, targeting Venezuela's oil exports. Maduro's government relies on that cash flow to maintain power, including military support.
"When you run out of money, your friends become your enemies," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuelan analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Markit. "That could be a game changer."
Rush to set date
Election officials loyal to Maduro moved swiftly Wednesday to set a date for the early presidential election, acting just hours after the breakdown in talks between the government and opposition over how to conduct the vote.
Venezuela traditionally has held its presidential elections late in the year, and the United States along with several countries in Europe and Latin America have condemned the rush to hold the vote so early, saying it undercuts political negotiations and is unfair to the opposition.
Maduro has already launched his campaign for a second term and currently stands as the only candidate.
The talks entered an "indefinite recess," said Dominican President Danilo Medina, one of the international mediators. The two sides accused one another of grandstanding and negotiating in bad faith.
Among the opposition's demands were free and fair elections, with guarantees such as allowing the United Nations to observe the election and the government allowing millions of Venezuelans living abroad to vote.
"If the government wasn't afraid of a free election, it would have no choice but to sign our document, which is based on Venezuela's laws," said Julio Borges, opposition leader at the talks.
U.S. oil shipments
The vote also might prompt the U.S. to follow through on a threat to cut off oil shipments from Venezuela, which is an OPEC nation.
While Venezuela has diversified its exports in recent years, it still depends heavily on shipments to the U.S., where several refineries are designed to handle Venezuela's heavy crude.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who just finished a tour of the region, said he was more favorable now to the idea of oil sanctions because the situation in Venezuela has steadily worsened.
The ultimate decision will be left to President Donald Trump, he said.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Thursday that the snap election date denies the opposition its ability to take part in the electoral process.
"The Maduro regime continues to dismantle Venezuela's democracy and reveals its authoritarian rule," she said. "It is unfortunate the Maduro regime is not courageous enough to contest elections on a level playing field."
Mark Feierstein, a former adviser to President Barack Obama and now at the Albright Stonebridge Group strategy firm, said the Trump administration has long weighed tightening U.S. sanctions.
"The concern is, if you really tank the economy further it can hurt the people of Venezuela more than they are hurting now and send a greater flood of refugees into Colombia," said Feierstein, adding that another consideration would be potential harm the U.S.
Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court announced Thursday that it is opening preliminary probes into alleged crimes by police and security forces in Venezuela stemming from violent clashes last year with protesters.
It will look at allegations that since April 2017 government forces "frequently used excessive force to disperse and put down demonstrations" and abused some opposition members in detention.
Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza railed against Tillerson's Latin America tour via Twitter on Thursday, saying it was aimed at shoring up support among "ruling elites" in the region against Venezuela.
"Our sovereign democracy does not obey imperialist pressures," Arreaza said. "It obeys a free people."