María Corina Machado wins Venezuelan opposition primary to face Maduro

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans on Sunday nominated conservative opposition leader María Corina Machado to challenge authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro in what his government has promised will be a competitive, internationally monitored presidential election next year.

The next obstacle she must overcome: A government ban that currently prevents her from running.

Machado, a 56-year-old industrial engineer and former lawmaker, won an overwhelming victory in the opposition’s first presidential primary in more than a decade to choose a single candidate to unite behind. Initial reports suggested unusually strong turnout for an unofficial vote that received no support from the government.

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Machado, a longtime critic of the government — she was once mocked by Hugo Chávez, the founder of Venezuela’s socialist state — has been disqualified from holding public office for 15 years.

But across the country — and among a diaspora of millions abroad, many of whom fled the failing economy here — there were signs of hope. Venezuelans waited hours in long lines to cast their votes.

María Victoria Ramos, 23, waited four hours with her 6-year-old to vote in the Libertador municipality of western Caracas.

“You can see it everywhere; people are determined to end this,” she said. “My son keeps asking me about why we are here, waiting for so many hours, and I just tell him that this is our chance for a better president.

“María Corina is that person.”

The government and opposition leaders agreed to terms last week for elections in the second half of 2024. The Biden administration rewarded the government the next day by easing sanctions against Venezuela’s oil, gas and gold industries.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the United States had “conveyed our expectation and understanding” that before the end of November, Maduro will “define a specific timeline and process for the expedited reinstatement of all” candidates in upcoming elections, including “all who want to run for president” next year, on a “level electoral playing field.”

The U.S. Treasury Department issued a general license authorizing U.S. companies to engage in long-barred transactions, primarily in the state-controlled energy sector. The license is to be valid for six months, to be renewed only if the authoritarian socialist government “meets its commitments” for elections and “with respect to those who are wrongfully detained.”

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In an agreement signed Tuesday in Barbados, Maduro’s government pledged to allow all parties to choose their candidates, grant all campaigns fair access to the media and permit international observers to monitor the vote.

The government did not promise to lift bans on several of the most popular opposition candidates. But a person familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the government has laid out a clear pathway for the rehabilitation of all candidates, including Machado, by the end of November.

If the government doesn’t follow through, the oil and gas license will expire in April. The United States can pull out a “yellow card” before then, the person said — and the “red card” in April.

The vote Sunday was the first since 2012 to choose a consensus opposition candidate. That year, Henrique Capriles was chosen to challenge then-president Chávez.

Capriles lost to Chávez in 2012, and to Maduro in a special election after Chávez’s death in 2013.

Before the vote Sunday, polls showed Machado leading a field of 10 candidates for the opposition numbers, despite her disqualification.

In the past decade, more than 7 million Venezuelans — a quarter of the population — have fled hunger, insecurity and official repression in the socialist state. Venezuelans abroad cast votes at 80 polling centers in more than 20 countries — “a majorly important bloc in deciding the outcome,” said David Smolansky, Machado’s Washington-based diaspora coordinator.

Social media was awash in videos of Venezuelans throughout Latin America, North America, Europe and Australia, some clad in coats or hats splashed in the red, yellow and blue of the national flag, waiting to cast votes.

In Madrid, Delia Pérez, 60, who left Venezuela five years ago, said the vote “filled her with hope that Venezuela will one day be free again.”

“Just six months ago, the outlook in Venezuela seemed grim,” Smolansky said. “We were grieving and felt hopeless, but today we see a resurrection. We know the path ahead will be challenging, but we’re willing to take it on.”

After reinstatement, Machado’s next challenge will be unifying a historically fractured opposition. Her policy goals — such as privatizing the lucrative, state-run oil industry — veer further right than many in the movement. If she is unable to register for the presidential election next year, another opposition candidate could insist on replacing her.

“After winning the primary Machado has every right to insist on her candidacy,” said Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council who focuses on Venezuela. “The thing is, Maduro will almost certainly play dirty. If she ultimately can’t run, she’ll have to work with the rest of the opposition on finding a realistic alternative.”

Maduro’s government dismissed the vote Sunday as a fraud.

“Who is going to believe them? Where are they going to get credibility?” lawmaker and former vice president Diosdado Cabello, one of the most influential people in government, asked during his weekly television show. “They are liars, they manipulate, they don’t care at all. We already have the results.”

David Smilde, a Tulane University sociologist who studies Venezuela, said that given the logistical and political challenges the vote faced, it was a success.

“Beyond turnout, the primary process has done what primaries should do: Force politicians to get closer to the people, generate excitement and spur change,” he said. “This process has done all of those things and has revived an opposition that just a year ago seemed to be in hibernation.”

Schmidt reported from Buenos Aires. Paul reported from Washington.

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