Venezuelan opposition leader faces deadline for standing down in race against Maduro


MEXICO CITY (AP) — It’s her choice — but one on which the hopes of millions of Venezuelans fighting to restore their democracy depends.

Barred from running for office, opposition leader María Corina Machado is facing pressure from foreign leaders and fellow government opponents to abandon her dead-end presidential candidacy ahead of a March 25 candidate registration deadline and make space for a substitute to take on the entrenched incumbent, Nicolás Maduro.

It’s an impossible choice that underlines Venezuela’s increasingly authoritarian tilt. The last election widely recognized as meeting international standards took place almost a decade ago, when the opposition swept control of the National Assembly in 2015. But the opposition’s boycotting of subsequent races has only strengthened Maduro’s grip on power.

Machado, a former lawmaker, rose to the top of the opposition leadership in 2023, filling a void left when other leaders went into exile. Her courage and principled attack on government corruption and Maduro’s mismanagement of the oil-dependent economy rallied millions of Venezuelans to overwhelmingly vote for her in an October opposition primary that the government tried to outlaw.

Success made her a target though. In January, in defiance of an electoral agreement Maduro signed with an opposition coalition, which earned him relief from U.S. economic sanctions, Venezuela’s rubber-stamping high court affirmed Machado’s ban on holding office.

Maduro’s government has since also accused Washington of conspiring to assassinate him, arrested more political opponents and expelled the staff of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Taken together, the actions indicate Maduro has no interest in a competitive race and is looking only to extend his decade-long rule, said Michael McKinley, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

“We’re no longer dealing with an imperfect electoral process,” McKinley said. “It’s a complete shutdown of all meaningful challenges to Maduro. In that context, it’s hard to argue that the opposition participating in elections without Machado and with a token candidate somehow advances a democratic opening.”

Polling suggests that Venezuelans overwhelmingly want to go to the polls and would trounce Maduro if given half a chance. And while Machado is their preferred candidate, a majority of opposition supporters want her to yield to someone else rather than have the opposition essentially sit out the race in which Maduro will be seeking a third six-year term.

“We’re with Maria Corina until the end,” retiree Sonia Alfonzo said, echoing Machado’s campaign slogan of “Hasta el final” — Until the end. “But if she can’t run, she must have an ace up her sleeve.”

Machado has repeatedly rejected the idea of renouncing her candidacy, but she has not explained her strategy to overcome the ban. Gerardo Blyde, who negotiated the opposition’s electoral agreement with Maduro’s representatives, told a radio station Friday “that there is still time” for the government to rectify and “allow our candidacy without obstructions.”

But other allies are already floating a plan B. Two-time opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles this week urged fellow Maduro opponents to get “a sense of realism” and rally behind an alternative. Capriles, who exited the primary as support for Machado increased during the campaign, asked them to put Venezuelans and “the country above all else.”

The pressure is coming from outside Venezuela as well. (backslash)Brazil’s leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, recently held up his own inability to run for president in 2018 while he was fighting corruption charges from jail as an example for Machado to follow.

“Instead of crying, I appointed another candidate,” said Lula, who was later cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

Machado’s meteoric rise as opposition leader last year was aided by careful messaging that softened her image as an elitist hardliner and allowed her to connect with skeptics. But throughout 2023, ruling-party leaders made clear she would never face off with Maduro.

There has been bad blood for decades between Machado and the disciples of Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, the late fiery leader Hugo Chávez.

Machado, a free-market conservative, once dared to interrupt Chávez as he gave a speech before the National Assembly, calling the expropriation of businesses theft. “An eagle does not hunt a fly,” he responded.

The Biden administration has tried to walk a fine line between expressing support for Machado — for years more closely aligned with Republicans in Washington — and keeping alive hopes for some sort of electoral participation.

A senior U.S. official said the Biden administration has not asked Machado to stand down and will respect whatever decision she makes. But the U.S. is stressing the need for the opposition to unite behind a common strategy, one that reflects the will of regular Venezuelans to cast ballots, said the official, who insisted on not being quoted by name to discuss the sensitive matter.

A key milestone in that delicate dance comes in April, when temporary sanctions relief that arose from the electoral agreement signed last year in Barbados expires and the White House must decide whether to reimpose restrictions blamed for a worsening humanitarian crisis that has led 7.4 million Venezuelans to abandon the country.

“As imperfect as the elections will be, they represent a huge opportunity for Venezuelans to mobilize and express their voice in ways they haven’t for a decade,” said Christopher Sabatini, a research fellow at the Chatham House in London. The group this month organized two days of closed door discussions on Venezuela attended by U.S. officials, international diplomats, human rights activists and members of the opposition.

Maduro’s government insists Machado’s ban is a done deal that cannot be revisited. After officials said election day would be July 28 — Chávez’s birthday — the government announced it would send invitations to international electoral observers like the European Union and the Carter Center, whose participation is part of the Barbados agreement. However, so far, the invitations haven’t been sent.

Entrenched, authoritarian leaders sometimes overestimate their strength and lose even heavily skewed elections. That’s what happened in Nicaragua in 1990, when Sandinista rebel leader Daniel Ortega was defeated after a decade in power, as well when Chileans in a 1988 referendum ousted dictator Augusto Pinochet.

But those examples have less relevance in a world where democracy is on the defensive and the United States’ ability to shape events is declining, said McKinsley, the former U.S. ambassador.

He said it’s more likely Maduro is looking for inspiration to the presidential election in Russia, where Vladimir Putin is competing against a slate of candidates handpicked by the Kremlin, to dismantle Venezuela’s democracy even further.

“It’s hard to think Maduro isn’t watching Putin’s electoral example and believes he can follow suit,” he said.


Goodman reported from Miami. Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda and videojournalist Juan Arraez, in Caracas, Venezuela, and writer Diane Jeantet in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, contributed to this report.

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