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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Venezuela tries to squash opposition campaign before it even starts

María Corina Machado, the leading opposition candidate, celebrates with supporters after hearing preliminary results of a primary election in Caracas, Venezuela, Oct. 22, 2023.

By Genevieve Glatsky

It seemed like a small glimmer of hope for supporters of democracy, after years of authoritarian rule.

The election of an opposition candidate to challenge Venezuela’s president, which followed on a commitment from the government to hold free and fair elections next year, led to cautious optimism among Venezuelans and international observers about the possibility of establishing a path back to democracy.

But now the government of President Nicolás Maduro is taking aim at the opposition election held this month, raising concerns that Maduro will resist any serious challenge to his 10-year hold on power even as his country continues to suffer under international sanctions.

The opposition primary in Venezuela, a South American nation of roughly 28 million people, took place with no official government support. Instead, the vote was organized by civil society, with polling stations in homes, parks and the offices of opposition parties.

More than 2.4 million Venezuelans cast ballots, an impressive number that suggests how engaged voters could be in the general election that is supposed to take place in 2024.

But in the days that followed, the president of the Maduro-controlled Legislature has claimed that voter turnout was inflated and called the organizers “thieves” and “scammers,” and the election a “farce.”

“The primaries sent a clear message that the Venezuelan people are, in essence, profoundly democratic,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, who researches Venezuela for the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research organization. “And if they have the option to vote, they will express themselves through the vote. And that is a huge challenge to those in power.”

Venezuela’s attorney general’s office announced last week that it was investigating 17 members of the national and regional commissions that oversaw the balloting, based on allegations of violating electoral functions, identity theft, money laundering and criminal association.

If the attorney general files criminal charges, the defendants would face a trial and possible imprisonment.

And on Monday, the Venezuelan Supreme Court issued a ruling effectively annulling the primary. But since the government played no role in the election, it is not clear what the practical effect will be or what the ruling will mean.

“All effects of the different phases of the electoral process conducted by the National Primary Commission are suspended,” the ruling said.

Juan Manuel Rafalli, a constitutional lawyer in Venezuela, said the attorney general’s office will likely ask the primary’s organizers to hand over documents that it will use to try to invalidate the election results or to call for a new one.

“They have unleashed all the judicial apparatus that they control to try to annul what happened,” Rafalli said. “Don’t look for a legal explanation for this because you won’t find one.”

Maduro assumed power in 2013, following the death of Hugo Chávez, who had led a socialist-inspired revolution in the late 1990s. Under Maduro, Venezuela, whose vast oil reserves made it one of Latin America’s wealthiest nations, has been in an economic free fall, which has set off a humanitarian crisis. About 7 million Venezuelans — one quarter of the population — have left the country.

The Maduro government and the opposition signed an agreement last month that was intended to move the country toward free and fair elections, including allowing the opposition to choose a candidate for next year’s presidential contest.

María Corina Machado, a center-right candidate and former member of Venezuela’s Legislature, won with 93% of the vote, in a 10-candidate race.

But Maduro’s government has barred her from running for office for 15 years, claiming that she did not complete her declaration of assets and income when she was a legislator. It is a tactic commonly used by Maduro to keep strong competitors off the ballot.

Machado is a veteran politician, nicknamed “the Iron Lady” to reflect her adversarial relationships with the governments of Maduro and Chávez. If Machado were allowed to run, some analysts say, she could likely defeat Maduro.

But her hard-line positions and insistence on holding members of the Maduro administration criminally responsible for human rights abuses could also make it less likely that the government would allow her to assume power.

“It is a contradiction to sign an agreement and then, in the days that follow, they proceed to violate the first points of the agreement,” she said in a speech Thursday, referring to the investigations of the organizers of the primary.

The Biden administration has lifted some sanctions on Venezuela’s crucial oil industry in response to some of Maduro’s recent overtures, which have included accepting Venezuelans that have been deported from the United States and releasing a handful of political prisoners.

But the administration also expects Venezuela to reinstate candidates prohibited from participating in the national election or face the restoration of sanctions.

The U.S. State Department said it was aware of the Venezuelan high court’s decision regarding the opposition primary and urged the Maduro government to abide by its agreement to hold a credible election next year.

“The United States and the international community are closely following implementation of the electoral road map, and the U.S. government will take action if Maduro and his representatives do not meet their commitments,” the statement read.

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