The European Union plays a political game in Venezuela. Washington does not find it amusing.

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The Cold War lived on in socialist Venezuela, where, since Hugo Chavez courted the Kremlin in the 2000s, the United States and Russia engaged in what was largely a two-way game of influence. But another player has entered the fray in a big way: the European Union.

U.S. Current and past officials are protesting the assertiveness of E.U. Josep Borrell, the chief of foreign policy in South America. Borrell’s most prominent move was to introduce the E.U. into the Venezuela debate: an official monitoring mission dispatched to Caracas to observe local and regional elections on Nov. 21. Critics worry that it may lend legitimacy international to an election they consider fundamentally flawed.

The elections happen as the pro-democracy movement in the oil-rich, authoritarian state is in danger of crumbling. Internal support for Juan Guaido, the opposition leader recognized by the United States and several dozen nations as Venezuela’s rightful interim leader in early 2019, is unraveling due to infighting, as well as his lack of progress. Three of the four major opposition parties, Bloomberg recently reported, are now opposed to U.S. efforts to back Guaido for another year.

As Venezuelans prepare to fill key governorships and mayoral posts, meanwhile, President Nicolas Maduro — Chavez’s handpicked successor — has outplayed the opposition, sowing confusion by fielding “friendly opposition” candidates in some races while succeeding in turning his enemies against each other in others.

Russia lent billions of dollars to Venezuela, became its major arms broker and invested heavily in its all important oil sector. In contrast, during Trump’s presidency the United States put extreme pressure upon Maduro. They imposed harsh sanctions on him and threatened to use military force to overthrow his regime. Borrell, who once likened Trump’s Venezuela policy to “cowboys in the Far West,” clearly sees a third way: engagement. Borrell described the E.U. mission to Venezuela as “a path towards credible, inclusive and transparent elections.” mission to Venezuela as “a path towards credible, inclusive and transparent elections.”

The Biden administration, which has changed the tone but little of the substance of the Trump policy, has publicly played down any daylight between Europe and the United States. However, some Venezuelan officials and members of the opposition have told me that they are afraid of the E.U. Maduro may be given a gift by the E.U. mission. It has not been democratic in the lead-up to the election. The elections are taking place after the pro-Maduro courts forcibly removed the heads of major opposition parties and while hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail and opposition candidates have limited access to media.

Those built-in advantages for Maduro could lead to a relatively clean election day for the cameras (and the E.U.

These built-in advantages for Maduro could lead to a relatively clean election day for the cameras (and the E.U.

“My concern is that the day of the election, the Europeans will say, ‘Well, it looked pretty good,’ when we all know the real problem is that the fraud was already baked in,” one senior U.S. official told me on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

The net effect is uncertain. EU. missions have proven stickers for democracy in the past. The U.S.-based Carter Center will also send a small group of experts to the vote. It says it is too small to actually vet votes. Instead, they will evaluate transparency and campaign environments. Both the E.U. and Carter Center will be hailed for their intransigence. The Carter Center and E.U. are scathing this month. It could actually undermine Maduro’s momentum at a time when he is gaining it.

Yet Borrell’s own staff, dispatched to Caracas to evaluate conditions for a mission, have suggested that Maduro may be playing the E.U. The Financial Times reported last month that members of the evaluation team concluded that “the deployment of an EU (mission) is likely to have an adverse impact on the reputation and credibility of EU (observers) and indirectly legitimize Venezuela’s electoral process.” The team added that “the minimum conditions for election observation are not met at this time.”

This all matters because Maduro and Guaido (and the opposition writ large) are locked in a global battle for legitimacy and recognition. The opposition sought diplomatic isolation of Maduro since Guaido’s challenge to the presidency was recognised by Washington and other countries nearly three years back. Slowly but surely, though, Maduro is coming out of the cold — winning fresh allies including the newly elected left-wing president in Peru, Pedro Castillo. In January, the European Union pulled its recognition of Guaido as interim leader, describing him as simply a “privileged interlocutor.” In addition to Russia, China, Cuba, more recently Turkey and Iran also have served as life rafts against U.S. attempts to strand Maduro.

“Maduro is playing a legitimacy game, and we’re concerned about how the E.U.’s observers could be used by the dictatorship to that end,” Leopoldo Lopez, Guaido’s political mentor, told me in a recent conversation.

The E.U.’s growing involvement in Venezuela had previously piqued Trump administration officials. Trump’s special representative on Venezuela told me recently that the E.U.’s growing involvement in Venezuela had previously piqued Trump administration officials. Capriles was a major player in the negotiations with Maduro’s regime and with the European Union. Even though he broke from Guaido,

“That was a very damaging moment when opposition unity really ended,” Abrams said.

Borrell’s office did not respond to a request for comment. He did defend the Venezuela mission last month. The elections in Venezuela do not look like the elections held in Switzerland. The Venezuelan regime is what it is, as we well know,” Borrell said, according to the EFE news service.

“Someone explain to me how it hurts the opposition and the electoral process that we send a mission that will try to observe and report if the conditions are not met,” he said.

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