Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Will Venezuela Have a Legitimate Election This Year?

María Corina Machado is the Venezuelan opposition’s presidential candidate, but the country’s supreme court last Friday upheld a 15-year ban on her holding office.

Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled last Friday that opposition candidate María Corina Machado cannot run for president in this year’s planned election. The court’s move upheld the government’s 15-year ban on Machado running for office on allegations of financial irregularities, which Machado denies. What does the court’s ruling mean for the prospect of a credible presidential election this year in Venezuela? Will the opposition rally behind another candidate, and who could that be? How likely is the United States to
reimpose sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry that it temporarily lifted last October?

Patrick Duddy, senior advisor for global affairs at Duke University, former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela: “The Venezuelan supreme court’s decision to affirm the ban on María Corina Machado’s candidacy for president was entirely predictable. Ever since Machado emerged as the winner of the opposition’s Oct. 22 presidential primary with over 90 percent support, the regime has backed away from the agreement it signed in Barbados on Oct. 17 to proceed to elections this year. If the court’s decision is not reversed, a presidential election that meets even the most minimal international standards is not possible. In the meantime, the opposition is not likely to rally behind an alternative candidate for at least two reasons. First, unifying the opposition in Venezuela has always been difficult. Machado’s success in building a broad coalition is precisely why the regime has reaffirmed the ban on her candidacy. Second, the opposition is likely to believe that switching to another candidate would make it complicit in the regime’s bad faith. It also understands that endorsing an alternate candidate would be tantamount to conceding any hope of winning the election. In an effort to support the Barbados agreement, the Biden administration on Oct. 18 lifted some sanctions. Maduro initially emerged from the Barbados negotiations strong and confident. However, the high level of participation in the opposition’s well-organized primary and Machado’s margin of victory clearly alarmed regime hardliners. The vilification of Machado and other opposition figures commenced immediately. At a Senate hearing on Oct. 31, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration was prepared to ‘snap back’ sanctions if the Maduro regime ‘violated the agreement’ with the opposition. The Barbados accord included a commitment to permit both sides to choose their own candidates. The opposition overwhelmingly chose Machado. The Maduro regime has clearly violated its commitment. As a consequence, it seems inevitable and necessary for the United States to begin to reimpose sanctions. The U.S. Treasury Department’s announcement on Monday ‘Authorizing the Wind Down of Transactions Involving CVG Compania General de Mineria de Venezuela’ began that process.”

David Smilde, professor at Tulane University and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America: “The reaffirmation of María Corina Machado’s electoral disqualification was not a surprise to anyone close to the Barbados agreements or Venezuela’s political process. The written accord did not mention her personally and only vaguely promised an authorization of candidates ‘that meet established requirements’ for participation. Furthermore, the Maduro government never deviated from its message that it would not lift her disqualification. Machado has a long history of calling for electoral boycotts, and her statements in recent days suggest this could be in the works again. However, polling in Venezuela is clear about a couple of things. First, Machado is hands down the preferred opposition candidate among Venezuelans. Second, they think she should fight against her electoral disqualification. But third, if it is clear she can’t run, they prefer an alternative candidate over a repeat of electoral boycotts of the past. Most people voted for Machado not out of a deep commitment to her person or policy stances, but rather because she seemed like the person who could deliver the change they desperately seek. They would undoubtedly be ready to switch to another candidate who presents that same opportunity. Another important factor is how Washington will react in the coming months. From 2021 to 2023, we saw how some U.S. officials’ infatuation with Juan Guaidó as interim president stymied the opposition’s reorganization long after his star had faded within Venezuela. The English-speaking, pro-American Machado seems even more irresistible. There is a clear danger that dynamics in Washington prevent the Venezuelan opposition from moving on if and when it is ready to do so.”

Julia Buxton, British Academy Global Professor at the University of Manchester: “Ironically, the ruling could improve the chances of a clean-ish election. The ban was never going to be lifted. It would have divided the ruling PSUV. White House and State Department mutterings of a return to full U.S. sanctions when General License 44 expires in April do not unnerve the Venezuelan government. The liberalization has not been generous enough to make any rescinding unmanageable for the Venezuelan state but significant enough to guarantee a lobby from creditors and energy companies against steps back. Moreover, Biden needs good relations with Maduro to accelerate migrant returns, and María Corina Machado has a long, well publicized record of regime change efforts. On these counts, there will be no reversal of the ruling under the current political regime. It could, of course, be immediately lifted by an incoming opposition government. In this respect, this is a wild opportunity for the opposition to outflank the PSUV. Machado can spend the next months expending opposition energies by pressuring for the ban to be lifted—as the PSUV expects her to do—or step back quickly for a ‘stand in’ who keeps the opposition momentum going but acknowledges this is Machado’s campaign. Having chosen to work within the electoral and judicial processes of the Venezuelan state, it is vital Machado stays within the process. Such a change in the cycle of opposition responses will signal a definitive moving on from the past and a challenge to the PSUV to respect its own rules of the game.”

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