The Non-recognition of the Venezuelan President Between Democratic Standards and the Principle of Non-intervention in the Internal Affairs of Other States

Throughout 2018, the situation in Venezuela remained highly volatile. In May, snap presidential elections took place and the incumbent President, Mr Nicolás Maduro, declared victory; however, the election results were recognized neither by the opposition (which had mostly boycotted the poll) nor by a large part of the international community.[1] On 5 August 2018, following an alleged drone attack against Maduro, a further crackdown on opposition leaders ensued.[2] In the meantime, a report by the International Monetary Fund estimated a 1,370,000 percent inflation by the end of the year,[3] while the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 1.5 million Venezuelans had left the country since the beginning of the crisis and the number of asylum applications had spiked.[4]

The year 2019 started with the official inauguration of Maduro’s second term as President of Venezuela, on 10 January. On 23 January, however, Mr Juan Guaidó, President of the National Assembly (the Venezuelan Parliament) and leader of the opposition,[5] declared himself interim President of Venezuela by relying on Article 233 of the Constitution, which attributes the interim presidency to the head of the National Assembly should the President become “permanently unavailable to serve”.[6] Venezuela thus plunged into political and institutional chaos.

On 12 February 2019, during the 90th Meeting (XVIII Legislature) of the Senate of the Republic, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Enzo Moavero Milanesi, described the position of the Italian Government on the Venezuelan crisis as revolving around four main points:

The first point is the strong concern for the humanitarian emergency; the goal is to find non-confrontational solutions that allow, on the one hand, the provision of essential goods (medicines and food) without delay and, on the other hand, assistance to the thousands of Venezuelans displaced to neighboring countries. In this regard, Italy has allocated specific funds within the framework of direct international humanitarian aid.

The second point is the strong condemnation, by the Government, of any kind of violence, repression, and violation of fundamental freedoms and human rights. We support a peaceful and inclusive solution that, in a context of national reconciliation, would allow to complete the path to democracy and to avoid an increase in tension, which might lead […] to a civil war.

In the third place, the Government maintains that the presidential elections of last May in Venezuela were marred, as far as their integrity, legality, and fairness are concerned, so that they do not confer democratic legitimacy on their alleged winner, Mr Nicolás Maduro. On the contrary, the Government fully recognizes the legitimacy of the parliamentary polls that led to the 2015 election of the National Assembly. The Government asks for new presidential elections as soon as possible. These new presidential elections must of course be free, credible, transparent, and they must be considered as such by the international community. They must be fully guaranteed [by the international community].

In the fourth place, the Government is committed to ensure that the safety and interests of our nationals in Venezuela (a community of 150,000 people) and the functioning of the Italian companies operating there are protected, and the same applies to the large community of Venezuelans of Italian origin.

The above position has been elaborated upon by the Italian Government on various occasions, both before the Italian Parliament and within international fora. As far as humanitarian assistance (i.e., the first point) is concerned, on 26 February 2019, Italy joined various other European Union (EU) countries in a “Stakeout on Venezuela”[7] where, among other things, the signatories “call[ed] on the [Venezuelan] security forces to […] allow humanitarian assistance to enter the country” and expressed their commitment to

providing humanitarian assistance and development cooperation in order to alleviate the suffering of those who are most in need in Venezuela. We are ready to scale up this humanitarian assistance and to support the work of the relevant UN agencies in full accordance with the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence when conditions are in place.

The concern for the humanitarian situation in the country and the commitment to provide emergency relief “according to the principles of the international humanitarian law” were reiterated by the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Ms Emanuela Del Re, at the high-level segment of the 40th session of the Human Rights Council, held on the same day.[8]

Notwithstanding the allocation of at least 2.5 million euro in favor of the whole Venezuelan population, both within and outside the country,[9] it appears that special attention was devoted by Italy to assisting its nationals living in Venezuela (fourth point of the Italian Government’s position). For instance, on 28 May 2019, at the 179th Meeting (XVIII Legislature) of the Chamber of Deputies, the Undersecretary of State for Infrastructure and Transport, Mr Michele Dell’Orco, recalled the interventions by the Government to support Italian nationals in Venezuela over the last years, including supplementing the lowest pensions and providing economic and social assistance to the most vulnerable.[10] Additionally, after failed attempts in the previous years,[11] at the beginning of 2019 the Government launched an initiative, totaling 1 million euro, to provide the Italian community in Venezuela with essential goods, including medicines. It might be argued that such conduct does not comply with the standard of impartiality explicitly evoked by Italy, as impartiality requires that humanitarian action is carried out making no distinction on the basis of nationality.[12]

The Government insisted on several occasions on the second element of the Italian position on Venezuela as outlined by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, namely the outright condemnation of violence and of governmental repression in particular. On 30 January 2019, Mr Moavero Milanesi informed the Senate (86th Meeting, XVIII Legislature) that a week before, on 23 January, following the repression of protests against Maduro, a declaration by all EU Member States had been released denouncing the use of force by the police and supporting the right to demonstrate,[13] and that another communiqué had been issued by the EU High Representative three days later.[14] According to the former declaration, “[v]iolence and the excessive use of force by security forces are completely unacceptable”, whereas the latter condemned the “indiscriminate violence from the authorities”. In late February, Italy joined other EU fellow States in the abovementioned “Stakeout on Venezuela”, which launched a “call on the security forces to show maximal restraint [… and] avoid the use of force”.[15] It is unclear whether such statements stigmatized violence per se or just if “excessive”, “indiscriminate” or “unrestrained”. What is apparent is that the Italian Government was less ambiguous in the choice of terms, as it strongly condemned “any kind of violence” both at the meeting of the Senate of 12 February 2019, cited above, and at the Human Rights Council.[16] It seems that no specification was made as to the fact that the use of force for law-and-order reasons is, under certain strict circumstances, legitimate, so that the expression “any kind of violence” might be too all-encompassing.

Also, it is interesting to note that condemnation of violence within Venezuela was not deemed by any political party in Italy to be a violation of the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other States. This norm, however, was mentioned with respect to the recognition of Mr Guaidó as interim President of Venezuela. While members from the League party – one of the two parties of the Government coalition, together with the Five Stars Movement – asked that Maduro step down immediately and voiced their support for Guaidó,[17] various governmental representatives from the Five Stars Movement called for a more cautious approach and refused to recognize Guaidó by relying on the principle of non-interference. On 31 January, the same day the European Parliament voted in favor of such recognition,[18] the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Manlio Di Stefano, stated during a TV interview that:

Italy does not recognize Guaidó because we totally oppose the fact that a third country or a group of third countries might have an influence on the domestic policies of another State. This principle of non-interference is recognized by the United Nations.[19]

The following day, the Deputy Prime Minister and head of the Five Stars Movement, Mr Luigi Di Maio, reiterated the non-recognition of Guaidó as President, while highlighting that the Italian Government did not recognize Maduro either:

As we have been ‘burnt’ by interferences in other States in the past, we do not want to go as far as recognizing individuals who were not voted into power. That is why we do not recognize Maduro either and that is why Italy keeps pursuing the diplomatic route and mediation with all countries, in order to agree on a process which would lead to new elections, but without ultimatums and without recognizing individuals who have not been elected.[20]

Whereas these statements did not take the form of official declarations, they did highlight a disagreement within the Government, whose official position the Minister of Foreign Affairs was called upon to clarify during the abovementioned debate held on 12 February before the Senate. He stated:

To dispel any doubt […] the [Italian] Government does not recognize Nicolás Maduro as the legitimate President of Venezuela. We did not recognize him symbolically by refusing to send our ambassador in Caracas to the inauguration ceremony, and we did not recognize him on any other occasion. We, together with the rest of the international community, did not recognize the [presidential] elections as legitimate. This is why the Government as well as many other countries ask for fresh elections promptly. This is why, on the other hand, the Government recognizes – since international observers also recognized them as such – the full legitimacy of the elections of the National Assembly and, consequently, the full legitimacy of the Venezuelan Parliament.

Indeed, the non-recognition of the outcome of the 2018 presidential elections in Venezuela is one of the major issues in the stance taken by Italy as well as by many other countries. In explaining before the Senate, in his abovementioned speech of 30 January 2019, why the Italian Government considered such elections as tainted, Mr Moavero Milanesi affirmed that:

the factors that led to this conclusion can be schematically recapped as follows: the turnout was low – unusually low – in a country where it is generally high; some judicial decisions, which are at least contentious, excluded from electoral competition several representatives of the opposition; many claims of irregularity were made and the result has been recognized neither by the opposition coalition, nor by the Organization of American States, nor by the European Union. These international organizations – of course they do not have the power to directly intervene, but they can freely express their view – immediately supported new elections, provided these are free and transparent.

The importance attached by Italy to the role of international organizations can be seen in the words just quoted, as well as in those used for the third point of the Italian stance on the Venezuelan crisis as expounded by Mr Moavero Milanesi in his speech of 12 February. Thus, it is not surprising that the country stood by the position taken by the High Representative on behalf of the EU on 26 January,[21] which on the issue of democracy reads:

The EU reiterates that the presidential elections last May in Venezuela were neither free, fair, nor credible, lacking democratic legitimacy. The country urgently needs a government that truly represents the will of the Venezuelan people.

The EU reiterates its full support to the National Assembly, which is the democratic legitimate body of Venezuela, and whose powers need to be restored and respected, including the prerogatives and safety of its members.

The EU strongly calls for the urgent holding of free, transparent and credible presidential elections in accordance with internationally democratic standards and the Venezuelan constitutional order. In the absence of an announcement on the organisation of fresh elections with the necessary guarantees over the next days, the EU will take further actions, including on the issue of recognition of the country’s leadership in line with article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution.

This display of European unity, however, was somewhat undermined by the release, on the same day, of coordinated announcements by a group of six EU countries (France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Portugal), which more stringently indicated a deadline of eight days by which the Venezuelan Government should announce fresh elections.[22] Italy did not formally join these countries but, in contrast to the non-ultimatum policy expressed by Mr Di Maio two days later, Mr Moavero Milanesi, speaking before the Senate at the abovementioned meeting of 30 January, said that the Italian Government

agree[s] with the indication of a deadline by which new elections shall be announced, even though in the European declaration this deadline is not specified, contrary to what is laid down in the declaration by the six aforementioned States.

Since Mr Maduro rejected the ultimatum, many countries proceeded to recognize Mr Guaidó as interim President of Venezuela. Accordingly, at the beginning of February, 19 EU Member States demanded the latter “to call for free, fair and democratic presidential elections”.[23] Consistently with its decision not to join other countries in recognizing Mr Guaidó, Italy did not sign this statement.[24]

This notwithstanding, the Italian Government always made it clear that calling for new elections was an unavoidable goal, and that this had to be done “in accordance with international democratic standards”.[25] As seen above, in the Venezuelan context such international standards for elections were illustrated by means of words like “free”, “fair”, “credible” and “transparent”; if the requirements of “integrity” and “legality” are not met, electoral results lack democratic legitimacy. It is interesting to note that, on the one hand and as already remarked, in assessing compliance with these standards the Italian Government attributed great significance to the opinion of international organizations, and on the other hand, these standards have sometimes been qualified with language implying their binding nature. For instance, commenting on the situation in Sudan, and manifesting their support for what was called the “democratic right” of the Sudanese people, a group of States including Italy stated that the elections to be organized in the African country “have to be free and fair”.[26] As to Libya, on 31 May 2019 Mr Moavero Milanesi said during a joint session (3rd Meeting, XVIII Legislature) of the Commission on Foreign Affairs, Emigration (3rd) and the Commission on Defense (4th) of the Senate of the Republic, and of the Commission on Foreign and European Affairs (III) and the Commission on Defense (IV) of the Chamber of Deputies, that the process of stabilization and pacification of the country “must lead […] to free elections”. And addressing the situation in Afghanistan, Mr Ludovico Serra, First Counselor at the Permanent Mission of Italy at the UN, said that the elections scheduled for September 2019 “must be credible, transparent and inclusive”.[27] Inclusiveness is also important, since – in the words used by Ms Del Re before the UN Human Rights Council – “involving all relevant stakeholders and minorities [… is one of the] necessary elements of a democratic transition”.[28] The choice of these terms seems to suggest the existence of actual rights and obligations.

In sum, based on several verbal statements the Government made in 2019, Italy appears to have taken the extraterritorial promotion of democracy seriously, on the premise that a government must truly represent the will of its people.[29] This is not to say that this has always been the case, or that the practice has always been consistent with the purported theory. For example, at first the Italian Government’s stance on the 2019 facts of Hong Kong was rather timid. However, on 3 December 2019, the Commission on Foreign and European Affairs (III) of the Chamber of Deputies adopted, with a unanimous vote, a motion (Final Resolution No. 8-00054, first signatory Lupi) that, inter alia, committed the Italian Government to “take the necessary steps to conform to the European Parliament’s resolution of 18 July 2019”. Remarkably, the latter resolution

Urge[d] systematic reform to implement direct elections for the position of Chief Executive and to the Legislative Council, as enshrined in the Basic Law, and call[ed] for agreement on an electoral system that is overall democratic, fair, open and transparent and that it grants the people of the HKSAR the right to elect candidates and to stand for election in the selection process for all leadership positions.[30]

Asked by a journalist to tell whether the approval of the motion, voted by the ruling parties as well as the opposition, meant the abandonment of the non-intervention policy, Ms Lia Quartapelle, Member of the Chamber of Deputies and second signatory of the motion, replied:

The [Italian] Government expressed a favorable opinion on the resolution. I believe that the policy of non-interference is used as a cover. We are respectful of what happens within all countries of the world, but when fundamental principles are violated we must reserve the right to speak our mind.[31]

In the end, it can be said that Italy deems the promotion of free and democratic elections a fundamental value underlying its foreign policy. The Italian Government invoked such value to deny the status of Mr Maduro as Venezuela’s President and instead declare the legitimacy of the Venezuelan Parliament. However, the Italian Government did not go as far as to recognize the speaker of the Parliament, Mr Guaidó, as President, according to a reading of the Venezuelan Constitution supported by a part of the international community, including the EU. In this regard, and quite interestingly, Italy did not fully align to the European position, even though the Government stressed more than once the importance of international organizations in matters of legitimacy – as demonstrated by Italy, inter alia, in the case of Libya (where the Italian Government struck a different balance between the principle of democratic legitimacy, on the one hand, and the stance taken by the UN, on the other).

[1] “Venezuela elections: Maduro wins second term”, The Guardian, 21 May 2018, available here. The main developments of the Venezuelan crisis during 2018 and the beginning of 2019 were summarized by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Enzo Moavero Milanesi, before the Senate during its 86th Meeting (XVIII Legislature) on 30 January 2019.

[2] “Venezuela lawmaker, student leader arrested: opposition”, Reuters, 8 August 2018, available here.

[3] “IMF sees Venezuela inflation at 10 million percent in 2019”, Reuters, 9 October 2018, available here.

[4] UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “Venezuela Situation: Responding to the Needs of People Displaced from Venezuela. Supplementary Appeal January-December 2018”, 2018, available here.

[5] During 2019, the National Assembly was still controlled by the opposition, which had won the 2015 elections. New parliamentary elections are planned in 2020.

[6] Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, 15 February 2009, available here (in Spanish). An English translation is available here.

[7] See UN Security Council, “Joint Stakeout on Venezuela by EU member states: France, The Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany and Italy”, 26 February 2019, available here.

[8] UN Human Rights Council, “Statement by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Emanuela Claudia Del Re, at the high-level segment of the 40th session of the Human Rights Council”, 26 February 2019, available here. That the Italian humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan population would be provided “fully respecting the principles of international humanitarian law” had also been stressed by Minister Moavero Milanesi during his speech before the Chamber of Deputies (124th Meeting, XVIII Legislature) on 12 February 2019.

[9] Details on such expenditures were given by Undersecretary Dell’Orco during his speech referred to in the main text immediately after this note.

[10] See Antoniazzi, “The Venezuelan Crisis”, IYIL, 2018, p. 476 ff., pp. 482-483. Mr Dell’Orco reported that assistance to the most vulnerable Italians in Venezuela could rely on additional 1.2 million euro in 2017 and 1.9 million euro in 2018, and that the latter amount would be confirmed for 2019.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See, e.g., UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “OCHA on Message: Humanitarian principles”, June 2012, available here.

[13] Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the European Union on latest developments in Venezuela, 23 January 2019, available here.

[14] Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the EU on the situation in Venezuela, 26 January 2019, available here.

[15] See supra note 7.

[16] See supra note 8.

[17] Including through a “friendly phone call” between Mr Guaidó and the Italian Minister of the Interior, Mr Matteo Salvini: “Salvini telefona a Guaidò”, Adnkronos, 11 February 2019, available here.

[18] On that occasion, both the representatives of the League and those of the Five Stars Movement abstained, joined by some Italian progressive Members of the European Parliament: “Venezuela, il parlamento Ue riconosce Guaidò presidente, l’Italia no”, ANSA, 31 January 2019, available here.

[19] “Di Stefano, Italia non riconosce Guaidò”, ANSA, 31 January 2019, available here.

[20] “Di Maio, in Venezuela nuove elezioni”, ANSA, 1 February 2019, available here.

[21] See supra note 14.

[22] “Germany, Spain, and France give Venezuela’s Maduro ultimatum”, Deutsche Welle, 26 January 2019, available here.

[23] Joint Declaration on Venezuela, 4 February 2019, available here.

[24] Apparently, Italy played a decisive role in blocking the adoption of a joint EU position: “Italy blocks EU statement on recognizing Venezuela’s Guaido: sources”, Reuters, 4 February 2019, available here.

[25] As said in the “Stakeout on Venezuela”, supra note 7. Ms Emanuela Del Re, too, in her statement of 26 February (supra note 8) spoke of “new presidential elections to be held as soon as possible applying full democratic standards”.

[26] Joint Stakeout on Sudan, 6 May 2019, available here.

[27] Open Debate on the situation in Afghanistan, 9 October 2019, available here.

[28] See supra note 8 (Ms Del Re was referring to Myanmar).

[29] The “Stakeout on Venezuela” (supra note 7) stated that “[t]he country urgently needs a government that truly represents the will of the Venezuelan people”. Also, on 17 October 2019, in replying to a parliamentary question before the Commission on Foreign and European Affairs (III), the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Ivan Scalfarotto, advocated for gradual and reversible countermeasures against Turkey by stressing that “the Government of Ankara does not always represent in full the Turkish civil society”.

[30] European Parliament resolution of 18 July 2019 on the situation in Hong Kong (2019/2732(RSP)), para. 12, available here.

[31] “Hong Kong, sì alla risoluzione Lupi. Quartapelle: ‘Superata la non ingerenza’”, Affaritaliani, 3 December 2019, available here.

The original (Italian) version of the quoted statements can be found here:

Minister Moavero Milanesi, Senate of the Republic, 30 January 2019.

Minister Moavero Milanesi, Chamber of Deputies, 12 February 2019.

Undersecretary of State Dell’Orco, Chamber of Deputies, 28 May 2019.

Minister Moavero Milanesi, joint session of the Commission on Foreign Affairs, Emigration (3rd) and the Commission on Defense (4th) of the Senate of the Republic, and of the Commission on Foreign and European Affairs (III) and the Commission on Defense (IV) of the Chamber of Deputies, 31 May 2019.

Undersecretary Scalfarotto, Commission on Foreign and European Affairs (III), 17 October 2019.

Paolo Turrini and Chiara Tea Antoniazzi

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