Venezuela government's ban on longtime foe draws attention to the opposition's presidential primary

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Maria Corina Machado holds up her arm as she speaks during a debate with other opposition presidential hopefuls, at the Catholic University Andres Bello UCAB in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, July 12, 2023. The opposition will hold primaries on Oct 22 to choose one candidate to face President Nicolas Maduro in 2024 elections. From left are Andres Velasquez, Carlos Prosperi, Freddy Superlano, Maria Corina Machado, Delsa Solorzano, Andres Caleca, Tamara Adrian and Cesar Perez Vivas. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

CARACAS – Maria Corina Machado has been a longtime foe of Venezuela’s government, and not exactly a unifying figure for its critics. But the government’s move to ban her from public office has helped rally the fractured opposition and focus much-needed attention on their effort to hold an independent presidential primary.

The ban was issued just days after she entered the race, and Machado says it shows that the government knows that it could face defeat.

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“If anyone had doubts about the strategic importance, the value, of the primaries, … the actions of the regime have made this clear: The primary is an opportunity to build civic and citizen strength,” Machado told reporters.

Opposition factions have been organizing a primary since late last year to choose a candidate for the arduous task of facing President Nicolás Maduro in the 2024 election under a system that independent observers say gives all the advantages to his socialist party.

Disagreements over who can vote, how and where prompted critics and supporters to question the primary's viability. But it gained traction — and additional government attention — thanks to two recent decisions by the primary organizing commission, which is independent from the government.

First, the panel allowed Venezuelans living abroad to participate in the Oct. 22 primary, creating an online registration system and announcing 90 voting centers in more than 30 countries — and 217,000 have registered so far. Then, the group chose to organize the election without help from Venezuela’s electoral authorities, avoiding the use of the government-owned electronic voting system.

The campaign comes at a time of economic crisis that has pushed 7.3 million people to migrate and has made food and other necessities unaffordable for those who remain. The monthly minimum wage is roughly $5, but feeding a family can run about $390.

Fourteen people signed up for the primary. But they had not been drawing much attention from an international community whose focus on Venezuela has waned since the start of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Machado’s ban has delivered just that kind of attention.

It drew swift condemnation from heads of state, regional organizations and rival opposition figure Juan Guaidó, whom Machado has fiercely criticized in recent years since he declared himself Venezuela’s interim president after Maduro’s 2018 re-election.

Even Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro, a key Maduro ally, spoke out against the ban.

“It is clear that no administrative authority should take away political rights from any citizen,” said Petro, who was handed a similar 15-year ban in 2013 and fought it successfully through a regional human rights body.

Machado is a conservative, free-market firebrand seen as radical even among the right-leaning opposition for her unwillingness to negotiate with the Maduro government, but she has nonetheless become the leading candidate.

Her ban, dated just three days after she entered the race, cites allegations of fraud and tax violations and accuses her of seeking the economic sanctions that the U.S. government imposed on Venezuela last decade.

The Venezuelan government frequently sidelines adversaries by banning them from public office, and not just in presidential contests. Such a ban was used retroactively in 2021 to remove gubernatorial candidate Freddy Superlano when he was ahead of a sibling of the late President Hugo Chávez but had not yet been declared the winner.

Superlano and longtime opposition leader Henrique Capriles — also officially barred from running for public office — have joined the primary despite their bans.

Superlano and Machado were among eight candidates who participated in a university-sponsored debate Wednesday in Caracas. Both decried the use of the bans, but unlike Superlano and other participants, Machado insisted she does not support the idea of creating a list of runners-up to replace the primary winner should that candidate not be allowed to register for the 2024 election.

David Smilde, an expert on Venezuelan politics at Tulane University, said Machado is hoping she can win the primary despite her ban and then appeal to voters, the military and the international community to pressure the government to let her run for president.

“It’s a vague plan, but understandable given the situation,” he said.

Smilde said Maduro and the leadership of the all-powerful United Socialist Party of Venezuela have absolute control of institutions, and that allows them to trickle out as many obstacles as they want to tilt the balance. He said Maduro and his allies would rather not suppress rivals as blatantly as Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, who imprisoned candidates to eliminate competition ahead of last year’s election.

“They’d prefer not to become Nicaragua,” Smilde said, but he added that they'd still rather be like Ortega than lose any of their grip on power.

Election campaigns in Venezuela typically involve handouts of free food, home appliances and other goods on behalf of ruling-party candidates, who also get favorable state media coverage. Wednesday's opposition debate, in contrast, could only be seen online.

Machado, who previously promoted election boycotts, told reporters last week that five people who participated in her recent campaign events were unjustly detained. She said a bus used for campaigning was seized by authorities, causing the owner to suffer a medical emergency due to the anguish of losing his livelihood.

The parliament of the European Union, which sent election observers to Venezuelan regional elections in 2021, passed a resolution Thursday calling the bans on Machado, Capriles and Superlano “arbitrary and politically fabricated.”

Venezuela's National Assembly leader Jorge Rodriguez responded that the statement reflected “psychotic thinking” and said the current Assembly wouldn't allow any further European Union election observers to enter the country.

The participation of observers is among the electoral conditions that the government and a U.S.-backed opposition group were supposed to negotiate in a dialogue process that began in 2021. But the talks have stalled.

Machado, 55, was accused of treason in 2004 while head of a group trying to organize a referendum to oust Chávez. She left the organization in 2010 and was elected to the National Assembly, but she was expelled in 2014 after the Panamanian government gave her its seat at a gathering of the Organization of American States to let her speak about the violence affecting Venezuela following Maduro’s election.

Ruling party boss Diosdado Cabello has repeatedly doubted that the Oct. 22 primary will even take place. Machado and other opposition candidates say they know they face an uneven playing field but have to press on anyway.

The opposition faces “an enemy that has no shame in using the weapons of the republic and the nation’s treasury to stay in power at any cost," said candidate Andrés Caleca.

But he said Maduro and his allies no longer have the votes. "That is their weakness.”

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