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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Venezuela’s democratic hopes dim as opposition is blocked from national vote

Corina Yoris, the opposition candidate endorsed by María Corina Machado, speaks at a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday, March 25, 2024. The government’s moves to bar an opposition coalition from fielding a presidential candidate makes it more likely that President Nicolás Maduro can retain his repressive hold on power. (Adriana Loureiro Fernandez/The New York Times)

By Genevieve Glatsky and Isayen Herrera

First, it was María Corina Machado, a popular former legislator. Then, it was supposed to be Corina Yoris, a little-known philosophy professor. But now, an opposition coalition has been blocked from fielding any candidate to run against President Nicolás Maduro in elections scheduled for July.

The coalition of opposing political parties, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, had hoped that uniting behind a single candidate would make it a viable challenger to Maduro.

But on Monday, a national electoral commission controlled by allies of Maduro used a technical maneuver to prevent the coalition from putting a candidate on the ballot. It was the last day for presidential candidates to register for the July vote.

As a result Maduro, whose repressive rule has left Venezuela in financial ruin and helped push out roughly one-fourth of its population, is increasingly likely to hold onto power.

The Democratic Unity Roundtable announced last week that it had agreed to put forward Yoris, 80, to run against Maduro in a show of unity after the country’s highest court in January had barred Machado from the ballot. The former lawmaker was widely considered to be a significant threat to Maduro.

The naming of Yoris briefly raised hopes that a free and fair election might be possible. But as the week progressed, Yoris said she was unable to access the digital platform set up by the country’s electoral authority to register as a candidate.

Every authorized political organization in Venezuela is given a code to access the electoral platform. But both Yoris’ party, A New Era, as well as the Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition, said that their codes were not working, preventing them from registering not just Yoris but any candidate at all.

“We have exhausted all avenues,” said Yoris in a news conference Monday morning. “The whole country is left with no choice if I can’t sign up.”

As the day went on confusion ensued amid signs that behind the scenes the government was trying to pull the levers of power and ensure an electoral field that would give Maduro a better chance of winning.

Just minutes before the registration deadline, the New Era party inexplicably was allowed to register a different candidate: Manuel Rosales, the party’s founder and governor of the populous state of Zulia, whose entry into the race was seen by political analysts as rubber-stamped by Maduro.

“There is no doubt that Maduro wants to choose who to run against and is afraid to run against anyone who represents a threat to him,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, who researches Venezuela for the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research organization.

Rosales, in a speech Tuesday, said he intended to run a rigorous campaign, vowing to “lead the biggest rebellion of votes that has ever existed.”

Two other candidates registered Monday, bringing the total number running in the election to 12, including Maduro. Most are considered close to the president and none is regarded a serious challenger.

The confusion over who is and is not allowed to run is a deliberate tactic of the Maduro administration to sow distrust among the electorate and divide the vote, according to Rafael Uzcátegui, a sociologist and a director of the Peace Laboratory, a human rights organization based in Caracas, Venezuela.

Machado, in a news conference Tuesday, said Rosales had been chosen by the government and that she was still throwing her support behind Yoris.

“These are very difficult hours, there are deep disappointments, there is a lot of anger, there is a lot of indignation. Many people feel that they were cheated.” she said. “What we warned for many months ended up happening: The regime chose its candidates.”

There could still be ways for the opposition to mount a challenge to Maduro. Machado could seek an extension of the deadline to register a candidate. Candidates can still name replacements in the coming weeks, leaving open the possibility that Rosales or someone else might step aside. A third option, said Dib, is that the opposition could unite around Rosales.

Despite the setbacks, Machado said the opposition was not giving up.

“Nobody is taking us out of the electoral route,” Machado said. “They are the ones who want to shut it down. They are the ones who want to take us out and they are not going to succeed.”

In October, Maduro signed an accord with the country’s opposition and agreed to work toward a free and fair presidential vote. Maduro said he would hold an election before the end of this year, and, in exchange, the United States, in a sign of good will, lifted some economic sanctions.

Days later, Machado won more than 90% of the vote to choose an opposition candidate, in a primary election run by a commission without the involvement of the government. The decisive results underscored her popularity and raised the prospect that she could beat Maduro in a general election.

Three months later, the country’s top court, filled with government loyalists, declared Machado ineligible to run over what the judges claimed were financial irregularities that occurred when she was a national legislator.

Six of Machado’s campaign aides have been arrested in recent weeks and six more have arrest warrants against them and are in hiding. Men on motorbikes have attacked supporters at her events.

The government has not commented on the opposition’s inability to register.

The country’s vice president, Delcy Rodríguez, announced Sunday on X, formerly Twitter, the creation of a state commission against fascism to address threats by “centers of power at the service of the global north.”

An unclassified U.S. intelligence report from February stated that Maduro was likely to win the election and remain in power “because of his control of state institutions that influence the electoral process and his willingness to exercise his power.”

While the Maduro administration had placed allies on the electoral council, the intelligence report said it was “also trying to avoid blatant voting fraud.”

Maduro, after registering to vote on Monday, claimed, without evidence, that two members of Machado’s party had tried to kill him that afternoon during a march to celebrate his registration. The party, Come Venezuela, denies that.

In his remarks he criticized the opposition whom he called “lackeys of the right.”

“They dedicated themselves to ask for sanctions against society and the economy, to ask for the blockade and the invasion of their own country,” he said. “They do not think for themselves, they do not act for themselves. They are pawns in the U.S. empire’s game to take over Venezuela.”

“On July 28,” he added, addressing the opposition, “there will be elections with you or without you.”

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