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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Meet the candidate challenging Venezuela’s authoritarian president



Edmundo González Urrutia, the opposition candidate challenging Venezuela’s authoritarian president, at his home in Caracas, Venezuela, on April 23, 2024. González was involved in opposition politics after retiring as a diplomat. (Adriana Loureiro Fernández/The New York Times)

By Genevieve Glatsky and Isayen Herrera


The day Edmundo González was plucked from obscurity and chosen to take on South America’s longest ruling authoritarian leader, technicians were busy making sure his home was not wiretapped.


“This was not in our plans,” his wife, Mercedes López de González, said in an interview that day in April in their apartment in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela.


Not long ago, González, 74, was a retired diplomat and grandfather of four with no political aspirations. He kept busy writing academic papers, speaking at conferences and taking his grandchildren to haircuts and music lessons. Few in his native Venezuela knew his name.


Now, many Venezuelans have placed their hopes in him to end years of repressive rule as he challenges President Nicolás Maduro, who has held power since 2013, in elections scheduled in late July.


González is suddenly back to having a full-time job.


“Twice a day I have to wipe the phone,” he said in a brief interview. “I delete almost 150 messages. I go to bed at 1 a.m., and by 4 a.m., I’m back on my feet and working again. I never imagined this.”


After years of rigged elections and political persecution, people in Venezuela yearning for a return to democracy have learned to expect disappointment.


A coalition of opposing parties, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, had been working to unite behind a single candidate who could pose a viable challenge to Maduro, but his government put up a series of obstacles.


In the end, González emerged as a candidate the government would not seek to block and who the opposition would support.


He accepted the role, but friends and colleagues say it is one he had never prepared for.


“Edmundo is not a man who’s ever had any political ambitions,” said Phil Gunson, a Venezuela expert for International Crisis Group in Caracas and a friend of González’s. “He’s someone who is doing what he sees as his duty.”


The youngest of three siblings, González was born to a family of modest means in the small city of La Victoria, about 50 miles west of Caracas. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father a shopkeeper who discouraged him from his childhood dream of being a diplomat, calling it “a profession for rich people,” according to the candidate’s daughter, Carolina González.


Undeterred, he went on to study international relations at the Central University of Venezuela.


In college he was a dedicated student, his classmate and longtime friend Imelda Cisneros recalled. It was a politically tumultuous time when a far-left communist ideology was becoming popular on campus and tensions were high.


But González became a student leader “with a very calm approach of reconciliation,” she said.

“He wanted to be a diplomat,” Cisneros added. “He was very clear about his objective from the very beginning.”


He joined the foreign service not long after he graduated in 1970, with postings in Belgium, El Salvador and the United States, where he earned a master’s degree in international affairs at American University in Washington.


He was later appointed ambassador to Algeria, and then to Argentina, where he was posted when Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1999. Chávez would go on to consolidate power under the banner of a socialist-inspired revolution.


González returned to Venezuela in 2002 and soon retired from the foreign service.


In 2008, he became active in the Democratic Unity Roundtable, advising behind the scenes on matters of international relations.


He became president of the coalition’s board of directors in 2021, said Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, a former executive secretary of the coalition.


But most people, even in Venezuelan political circles, did not know he held that role until his presidential candidacy was announced because opposition leaders often face persecution.


That makes it a risky decision for González to step into the spotlight against an incumbent bent on retaining power.


“I’m nervous because we don’t know if something could happen to us,” López de González said.


Those who know González say mounting a presidential campaign is not something he would take on lightly.


“He is an extremely balanced man, calm, quite serious and above all sober,” said Ramón José Medina, who headed the Democratic Unity Roundtable until 2014 and has been a friend of González’s for decades.


Maduro signed an agreement with the opposition in October to take steps toward free and fair elections, and the United States temporarily lifted some severe economic sanctions as a gesture of goodwill.


Days later, a former national lawmaker, María Corina Machado, won a primary election with more than 90% of the vote, making her a significant threat to Maduro in a head-to-head matchup.


Since then, the Maduro government has thrown up roadblocks to prevent a serious challenger from making it onto the ballot.


First, the country’s top court disqualified Machado in January over what the judges claimed were financial irregularities that occurred when she was a national legislator — a common tactic used to keep viable competitors off the ballot.


Then last month, the government prevented an opposition coalition from putting forward another preferred candidate using technical electoral maneuvers just before the registration deadline.


Only one politician, Manuel Rosales, who was seen by political analysts as greenlit by Maduro, was allowed to register. It briefly seemed that the effort to field a unified candidate had been defeated.


But, in a surprise, the coalition announced that the national electoral authority had granted it an extension, paving the way for González to officially enter the race. Rosales stepped aside and threw his support behind González.


González’s career as a “consensus seeker” helped him to unite the opposition, Gunson said.


“He’s someone that is acceptable to a lot of different people,” he added. “And he doesn’t offend anybody.”

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