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Candidate registration is becoming a purge of Maduro's opposition

Candidate registration is becoming a purge of Maduro's opposition

The Venezuelan president is up to his old tricks. Will the US handle it the right way this time?

Analysis | Latin America

The coming month will be crucial for determining what the Venezuelan opposition’s participation will look like in the July 28 presidential election.

The five-day window for candidate registry opened Thursday. But the Venezuelan opposition faces a barrage of efforts by the Nicolás Maduro government aimed at harassing and disqualifying his challengers.

The National Electoral Council (CNE), controlled by President Nicolás Maduro, reaffirmed the disqualification of top opposition candidate María Corina Machado in January based on a collage of specious charges.

Rumblings from Caracas had already suggested serious talks about naming a replacement candidate for Machado. However, a warrant was issued for the arrest of the most likely substitute, her campaign manager Magalli Meda, on Wednesday. Several of Machado' team were also arrested and taken away. The charges? All have been accused of taking part a violent anti-government conspiracy.

Meanwhile, the CNE has also annulled the registry of a number of opposition parties, at this point leaving only two from the dominant coalition.

The Venezuelan opposition faces several complex challenges in trying to channel the energy and enthusiasm expressed for Maria Corina Machado in the opposition’s primary election last October into the general election in July. U.S. policy makers need to encourage opposition participation and prioritize the Venezuelan people’s right to self-determination.

Machado is a long-time hardline activist and politician who for years has been at odds with the dominant opposition coalition in demanding foreign intervention, suggesting that no election was possible with President Nicolas Maduro remaining in power, and insisting that dialogue with the regime was a farce. But her popularity soared over the past year as she plunged headlong into the primary process and even embraced the Norwegian-mediated negotiation process between the Maduro government and opposition coalition that has been taking place on and off again since 2019.

Citizen participation in the opposition’s primary surpassed all expectations and gave her over 90% support among a population desperate for change. This has essentially made her the opposition’s candidate and given her a predominant voice in the coalition.

However, recent polling shows that a majority of Venezuelans would support any unified opposition candidate. This contradicts the message that she and her advisors have been propagating — that she is the only viable candidate — and explains why, in recent weeks, she has taken to attacking pollsters and analysts.

In a recent article, a colleague and I suggested that, despite a decade of efforts to counter Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian slide, the U.S. government’s ability to impact the Maduro government is quite limited. Under three U.S. presidents, efforts have ranged from diplomacy to outright attempts at regime-change.

Yet during that time, the Maduro government has become a comprehensive authoritarian state that the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights has accused of not just censorship of media and harassment of opposition politicians, but enforced disappearances and torture.

Washington, however, does have significant influence with the Venezuelan opposition. At this point, the U.S. needs to be absolutely consistent that an electoral boycott is not its preferred path forward. The Venezuelan people are clear about this, as is most of the opposition, and Biden officials also seem to have heard that message. Multiple times in the past, however, the opposition has snatched dysfunction out of the jaws of consensus, with factional leaders each pulling in different directions or preferring abstention rather than letting a rival leader end up on top.

This possibility should not be underestimated this year as well. While boycotting an election that does not meet international standards may seem morally and emotionally satisfying, the research is quite clear that participation in an unfair election is more effective than abstaining. Tacit U.S. approval of past boycotts should not be repeated this time around.

Machado has insisted on running despite her disqualification and has taken a hard line against candidate substitution in order to maximize pressure on the regime. Her logic is that the regime will buckle to pressure and lift her ban and allow her on the ballot. This position has been embraced in Washington, especially on Capitol Hill by Republican lawmakers and even some Democrats for whom Machado’s hard line may resonate with their constituents.

But there is a distinct danger that Machado will pivot and get behind a substitute candidate, and lawmakers in Washington will fail to support such a move, thus complicating the opposition’s participation in the elections. In the past, U.S. government inertia has dragged down an opposition that was willing to take new paths. This kind of muscle memory absolutely needs to be avoided this time around.

If Machado does pivot, there are a number of reasons the gambit could still fail — from opposition dysfunction to the Maduro regime simply disqualifying or jailing the substitute candidate, or complicating the registration process. If this happens and a new opposition candidate emerges who has the potential to unify Venezuela’s discontented electorate even without Machado’s blessing, that process must be allowed to proceed without interference from Washington.

This election is about the long-suffering Venezuelan people. It is important to realize that popular support for Machado is based largely on her being perceived as someone who can deliver change in terms of getting them to a post-Maduro future. Many of those who support her do not support her policies on major issues such as sanctions, foreign intervention, and privatization of the state oil company. Thus, a quick swing of public support to another candidate with quite different policy positions is entirely possible. It is fine for U.S. policymakers to have favorite foreign politicians and allies, but these relationships should not be allowed to interfere with Venezuelans’ attempts to take new directions to unify against Maduro.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials need to prepare for the likelihood that the election will not be competitive. Any truly free and fair electoral event would lead to the defeat of Maduro and his loyalists. They have a great deal to lose and they will do what they can to avoid such an outcome.

Nonetheless, it is always worth making an authoritarian government play the election game because it can make mistakes, and a “stunning election” result can generate a cascade of events that leads to a transition in spite of the incumbent government’s efforts.

At the same time, everyone should be clear that the Maduro regime controls all of the institutions of government as well as the armed forces and the oil industry. The most likely outcome is that they maintain power with the only real doubt being how inelegantly they do so.

What happens in this scenario needs to be carefully planned out ahead of time. As a result of last October’s Barbados Accords that laid out the path for a democratic election, the Biden Administration issued licenses that effectively suspended the most important U.S. sanctions on the Venezuelan economy — namely, on oil and gas — for six months. Those licenses are up for review in mid-April, and snapping sanctions back in place would be a mistake.

Economic sanctions on Venezuela have exacted heavy humanitarian costs, impoverishing the population and significantly impacting emigration. And since they affect the population more than the government, they have actually strengthened the regime’s power over the population. Targeted sanctions on specific individuals should be maintained. While they have not proved terribly effective either, they do provide a level of international stigmatization for individuals who have violated the rights of others.

If properly implemented and monitored, they can provide useful impetus for reform and democratization.

The most important thing the U.S. government can do in the longer run is to robustly support a deepening and extension of dialogue and negotiation within Venezuela. Only when the shape of the conflict and nature of the game change will Chavismo be willing to let go of power. Processes of reconciliation and reconstruction of the social fabric are the only way intractable conflicts can become something else.

The effort that has been led by Norwegian diplomats is well-conceived and carried out with genuine expertise. But it needs more international, and especially U.S., support if it is to succeed.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. (StringerAL/ Shutterstock)

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