Venezuela can have free, fair elections

Venezuela must release political prisoners and ensure free and fair elections. In the history of political thought, and for true democrats, Montesquieu is a central figure. The separation of powers was critical to the spread of democracy.

The independence of the judiciary, freedom of opinion and expression and respect for universal suffrage are also inextricably linked to Western political culture, and therefore to all of Latin America. In fact, one of the greatest Latin American intellectuals and political thinkers, the universal humanist Andres Bello, whose anniversary we celebrated on Nov. 29, dedicated his life to making Latin America a key pillar of Western culture and values.

In most Latin American states, the constitution enshrines these founding principles of democracy. So no one should be the victim of persecution, harassment, or arbitrary imprisonment simply for peacefully opposing the government in power. Nor is it acceptable for people to be condemned without a fair trial. Whether it is liberal or popular, democracy is always based on these universal values.

Venezuela should be no exception. The constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela stands alongside the fundamental principles of freedom, justice, political pluralism and the democratic exercise of popular will. It also enshrines the prevalence over domestic law of human-rights treaties that have been ratified by the country. Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” The government of Venezuela should respect and implement its own constitution.

During and after the peaceful protests that began in Venezuela in February 2014, many opponents, students and political leaders were subjected to arbitrary arrest, including some European citizens. Some even died. Those under trial have not been able to exercise their basic right to a proper defense. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Committee against Torture, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and major nongovernmental organizations defending human rights have demanded the immediate release of those arbitrarily arrested, including the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma; the mayor of San Cristobal, Daniel Ceballos and opposition leader Leopoldo López. The latter has been recently sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison, almost all in solitary confinement, and based on false evidence.

To imprison a democrat is to betray democracy. We call on Venezuela to ensure an independent judiciary. And we call on the Venezuelan judiciary to release López — and all political prisoners — immediately.

Venezuela is a great country, and it has set a good example. After the Spanish Civil War and World War II, hundreds of thousands of European migrants and exiles found new hope and new opportunities there. After a global cataclysm, Venezuelans opened their arms and the doors of their homeland. Venezuela matters for Europeans. So on March 12, the European Parliament called on “the E.U., its member states and the international community to make statements and take measures to show solidarity with the Venezuelan people in this difficult period.”

On Dec. 6, elections will be held for the National Assembly of Venezuela. Several opposition candidates have been disqualified by the political authorities, who have also rejected the presence of independent international observers, as proposed by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union.

This attitude is worrying. The secretary general of the OAS has already expressed his concern over the electoral conditions in an unprecedented public letter on Nov. 10 to the president of the National Electoral Council of Venezuela. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reiterated his concern after an opposition leader was shot dead on Nov. 25 after an electoral rally with Lilian Tintori, the wife of the jailed Leopoldo López.

We support their statements: There can be no true democracy in an electoral climate dominated by violence, threats and intimidation of the opposition.

President Nicolás Maduro is the guarantor of the constitution. He must ensure free elections that are truly transparent. And he should respect the result. It is an essential condition if Venezuelans are to live together peacefully.

We cannot be indifferent to the legitimate claims of the Venezuelan democratic opposition. To remain silent is also to take sides. To demand freedom, democracy and respect for human rights in Venezuela is not interference or intervention — it is our duty as democrats. These are the universal values that we must defend for everyone, not just for our own citizens.

We appeal to all democrats to join our request and protect our common civic heritage together. Let us denounce the arbitrary abuse of power and stand up for democracy and freedom.

Mariano Rajoy Brey is president of Spain. David Cameron is prime minister of the United Kingdom. This piece was co-autored by Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe; Felipe González, former president of Spain; and Ricardo Lagos and Sebastian Piñera, former presidents of Chile.