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A New Opposition Candidate Challenges Venezuela’s Maduro

Will Maduro allow a competitive election, in which he could lose power, or will he subvert it like Ortega did in 2021 in Nicaragua?

Edmundo González Urrutia

Edmundo González Urrutia. Foto: EFE | Confidencial

Carlos F. Chamorro

30 de abril 2024


On April 20th, the Venezuelan opposition organized in the Democratic Unity Platform unanimously proclaimed former diplomat Edmundo Gonzalez Urrutia as their presidential candidate, with the support of Maria Corina Machado, the winner of last year’s opposition primary, and Governor Manuel Rosales, who stepped down in favor of Gonzalez.

To analyze the implications of designating this new opposition candidate after the Maduro regime vetoed Corina Yoris, the substitute candidate for Maria Corina Machado, we spoke on Esta Semana with Venezuelan journalists Luz Mely Reyes, director of Efecto Cocuyo, and Boris Muñoz, columnist for El País and former opinion editor for The New York Times in Spanish.

We asked them whether Maduro and the United Socialist Party are willing to allow a competitive election on July 28th, in which they could lose power, or if they will subvert the vote like Daniel Ortega did in Nicaragua in 2021. We also asked what the Venezuelan opposition’s democratic transition proposal looks like, and here’s what they told us.

Edmundo Gonzalez’s candidacy, unanimously supported by the opposition Unity Platform, is so far accepted by the Electoral Tribunal and Maduro. The million-dollar question we’re asking in Latin America is whether there will really be a competitive election in Venezuela on July 28th.

Luz Mely Reyes: The short answer is that I doubt there will be a competitive election because the electoral process already has flaws that compromise its integrity. One might even doubt whether Edmundo Gonzalez, the candidate of the Unity Platform supported by the other two political parties that have possibilities of running in this opposition process, will still be the person Venezuelans will be voting for on July 28th.

Lula, Petro, the US vs. Putin, Ortega, Diaz Canel

What is happening in the Maduro camp? Are they willing to accept going to an election where they could lose power, or are they buying time before deciding their final action to decapitate this process?

Boris Muñoz: I have questions, I don’t have answers at this moment. I’m curious to know why Maduro has accepted being led down the electoral route. I believe that the intervention of (Gustavo) Petro and (Luiz Inácio) Lula has been key in all this. Likewise, the United States, as they said, through Francisco Palmieri, the commercial envoy to Venezuela. The negotiation for lifting sanctions is still on the table, and there is no definitive decision. This has been an incentive for Maduro to open up to the possibility of a competitive election; perhaps that’s not the best term, but an election where there will be a significant opposition presence competing for power.

So, what’s happening in the Maduro camp? It’s hard to know. From what I’ve heard, the person most willing to compete is Nicolas Maduro. There are other power players within Chavismo, (the movement that began at the turn of the century led by Hugo Chavez) such as Diosdado Cabello and the Rodriguez brother/sister (Jorge and Delcy) who are not in favor.

What is driving Maduro to make that decision? It’s a question that will take a while to answer because the chances of him losing power are very real. Of course, the opposition that got 2.6 million votes in their primary has that capital, but to take it to a presidential election, it would need to grow considerably. They would need to obtain around six to seven million votes at the polls. That’s a very big organizational challenge.

Maria Corina Machado is doing quite intensive work in that direction and working closely with Edmundo Gonzalez. Will the government allow that to continue? I don’t know; it’s a big unknown. [Several of Maria Corina’s colleagues have been arrested.] Of course, any day Maduro could kick over the table. He could launch an attack, an ambush.

But what intrigues me is wondering why he has somehow accepted the ideas of people like Petro to hold some kind of consultation to agree on the political survival of the loser. If you listen to Lula’s words, they are also very clear in that sense, when he says there will be an election and the loser will have to go home while the others take power. We don’t know if he’s referring to Chavismo itself in some sort of continuity maneuver, or the opposition. But those are signs indicating there’s an environment leading to an election.

Boris mentions the influence of these democratic left leaders Lula and Petro in this supposed opening of Chavismo, but Maduro’s real allies are the representatives of ALBA who were just meeting in Caracas, including Diaz-Canel from Cuba and Daniel Ortega from Nicaragua. One would assume that what they discussed with Maduro was the model applied in Nicaragua to criminalize the entire opposition, eliminate competition, and move forward at all costs, despite destroying an election. What weight does the influence of Cuba and Nicaragua have in this crisis?

Luz Mely Reyes: An analyst reminded us in Efecto Cocuyo that the US strategy has been more about incentive and influence, meaning having contact with Petro and Lula to influence from that side of the democratic left and contrast it with the hardened left represented by Ortega and Diaz-Canel, who were in Caracas this past week for a meeting of the ALBA countries.

But there are other factors such as oil, human rights, and politics. Venezuela is an oil-producing country, and the US has applied sanctions on the industry. However, they also announced a further period of easing the sanctions on April 18th. Now US companies can operate in Venezuela until May 31st, but that is a timeframe for continued negotiation.

Then there’s the human rights issue, which could explain why Maduro has been flexible and listened to other voices. This week, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court was in Venezuela opening an office. Maduro also accepted the possibility of reopening the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office, which was expelled two months ago.

In the political arena, while this presidential election is existential, it’s not the end goal because the Venezuelan electoral cycle includes the 2025 elections for the legislature, governors, and mayors. In Venezuela, governors and mayors are directly elected, so there’s a lot still at stake because those Chavismo governors and mayors also have a lot to lose if a transition occurs (on the national level) affecting their prospects, especially since none of them have been under investigation for human rights violations.

That’s fundamental because the one at the head of that chain of command for alleged crimes against humanity committed in Venezuela, the investigation led by the International Criminal Court, is Nicolas Maduro. So, there’s a hypothesis within dissident Chavismo that Maduro is also seeking to reduce the impact that could have, the continuation of the investigation against him.

Elections and Civil Resistance

A law that was announced several weeks ago and has already been approved in general, supposedly against fascism, resembles one that Ortega invented in Nicaragua in supposed defense of national sovereignty to criminalize any opposition political activity and declare opponents as traitors to the homeland to imprison and disqualify them. Will this law be approved, could it be applied at some point?

Boris Muñoz: Regarding human rights, I agree with Luz Mely that it is critical because Maduro realizes that he needs to soften his record for a negotiation in which he could eventually lose power. And of course, the internal factor of Chavistas in other positions of power in Venezuela is also very compromised by this human rights context.

The government is preparing on all fronts. The initial approval of the “antifascist law”, which bears strong similarities to what was approved in Nicaragua, is a leap forward, typical of Chavismo, of preparing for all possibilities and eventually, if necessary, taking the Nicaraguan path. Doing so, and already having the legal instruments that would allow it.

If I were the opposition right now, I would try to prevent this from being approved; I would put it in the negotiation because this is a way they are using to intimidate María Corina Machado, who has much popular support. And obviously, if this goes down a dead-end street leading to the cancellation or postponement of the elections, or in the worst case, they steal the election, there will be a problem on the streets because one of the possibilities the María Corina campaign handles is popular mobilization, and they are organizing their committees, which have a dual function of electoral organization and civic mobilization. So, the picture is still blurry, but with hotspots that suggest things could heat up as the election date approaches.

Journalists remain around the main headquarters of the National Electoral Council in Caracas. Photo: EFE | Confidencial

Is there an election campaign taking place? You see those images of Maria Corina Machado touring municipalities and states across the country with an overwhelming show of support. She is leading the campaign for the opposition candidate while the candidate is campaigning from home giving interviews. We’ve already seen him talking with Luz Mely. Is this the tone of the electoral campaign: Maria Corina on the streets and the candidate talking to the media?

Luz Mely Reyes: This is a very unusual campaign. But the conditions were set by Nicolas Maduro’s government by preventing María Corina from being the registered candidate and later preventing Professor Corina Yoris, who was the substitute, from running. What is happening? It seems to me that people may perceive María Corina as the candidate rather than the opposition leader, or in any case, not yet differentiating very well that she is leading this movement, still in its beginning, but with characteristics of nonviolent civil disobedience and peaceful resistance that could be expressed on voting day, for which a great deal of organization is needed because desire alone is not enough.

Then you have the candidate Edmundo Gonzalez, who was chosen as a “placeholder” candidate; in other words, they nominated him to hold the spot on the ballot, like when you go shopping at the supermarket and ask someone to hold your place in line. Now he has to take on that candidacy.

He is a 74-year-old man, was a diplomat, and has always worked behind the scenes. I get the impression that he is doing the same thing, assembling, and reconfiguring, trying to unite all those opposition voices and organizations that, even though they endorsed him in the Unity Platform, went through very intense moments of friction.

María Corina is on the streets, traveling the country, with very strong emotional expressions, as you can see in the videos. And the candidate is in a calmer, safer environment. I think there are several challenges the Venezuelan opposition will have to handle. One is how to ensure that people —since we have electronic voting, and the voting machine is a virtual ballot like an ATM where you mark— are used to seeing the candidate’s face; it’s part of Venezuelan voting culture. So, what will happen when people look for María Corina and don’t see her in any of the little pictures in the boxes? I think, although it may seem superficial now, it deserves much attention.

Boris Muñoz: I agree with Luz Mely once again. I think it’s essential for Edmundo Gonzalez to come out of his balcony with macaws, very comfortably from the east of Caracas. I’m not saying it critically or class-based, but he should go out to walk the streets, let people know him, have human contact. It’s very important for him to become a credible candidate and not just a puppet put in place by the opposition to hold the spot. Since he is a man who has things to say, with a political career; he is being very careful. His recent interview in El País and the interview with Efecto Cocuyo demonstrate it, he is measuring every word he speaks. But I think Venezuelans will want María Corina to continue campaigning, organizing the mass movement and the possibility of civic, peaceful resistance, which has been latent even before, since people voted in the opposition primary for María Corina in clear defiance of her political status because she had been disqualified, yet they still voted for her. Edmundo Gonzalez needs to move around, put on a guayabera, get out of his tie, and start hitting the streets and neighborhoods.

A month ago, the last time we spoke on this show, Corina Yoris had been named the substitute candidate, and then the regime vetoed her, not because she is a political leader, but because she has the endorsement of Maria Corina Machado. So, why veto Corina Yoris and not Edmundo Gonzalez?

Boris Muñoz: The government had accepted him as a possible candidate, even as a placeholder, and it was difficult to undo that, especially it owes something to Lula, who asked María Corina Machado to name her replacement, as he did with Fernando Haddad (in Brazil), and when she does, Maduro punishes her and does not allow Corina Yoris to register. That couldn’t be repeated in the context of what was happening in the past few days, and that’s why the joint statements of Petro and Lula last week.

Now I imagine Chavismo says, we still have many cards to play, and we will play them if necessary. Among those cards is the rejection of Edmundo Gonzalez’s candidacy if it endangers them; Chavismo’s game plan is really not to take the risk of facing someone who represents a real challenge.

Luz Mely Reyes: Yes, I agree with Boris. The government is doing nothing unexpected. That is, it is using what it has in its toolbox of repressive and authoritarian measures.

The factor exercising influence is the United States. Venezuelan analyst Felix Seijas said that there are forces pushing and exerting pressure within Chavismo’s internal dynamics, forces that you don’t see because there is no information coming out. I get the impression that the fundamental force is the United States with its carrot-and-stick strategy through sanctions.

The Democratic Transition Offer

What does the Unity Platform offer to Venezuelan society, including Chavismo? They are united around a ticket, a ballot spot, united around a candidate, but do they have a program for democratic transition that translates into concrete things for the electorate, the population, and Chavismo? Or is María Corina going one way and the rest of the movement going in another?

Luz Mely Reyes: When there was the primary election, the candidates were required to present a government program proposal. That discussion has not yet taken place, although there are several proposals. Gonzalez has talked a lot about a Transition and is one of the few people who have put the word into the public discourse.

Although many groups have worked on transition scenarios, including transitional justice, it is still not very organic, not structured. The Unity Platform offers the possibility of democracy returning to Venezuela. And just that is a very valuable overture for the opposition and also for Chavismo. I think Chavismo and the democratic forces within it have opposed corruption and still believe in a democratic project that would also benefit from democracy returning to Venezuela.

Boris Muñoz: Yes, I see it along the lines of “to the end,” as María Corina has mentioned as her key message. And “to the end” does not necessarily mean the end of Chavismo but the end of this Chavista government. And from there, there are many points that need to be negotiated and discussed. We do not yet know a concrete transition proposal; it is still very abstract.

The opposition’s responsibility in this game is to put that up for discussion and translate it into a language that people on the streets can understand as much as possible, because these are sometimes even technical things that a citizen without a high level of information will not quickly digest. This needs to be elaborated in a way that a post-Chavista future is understandable.

It’s time to start drawing it up and selling it.

María Corina Machado has a significant advantage because of her reach and will have to bring together other opposition leaders who have been around for a while and have organizational skills and charisma, such as (Henrique) Capriles and Manuel Rosales. There will have to be a team behind Gonzalez’s  candidacy to carry out this need to put these messages on the street credibly so that the government feels obligated to respond to that and try to win the election.

Suppose the electoral route continues, and we approach July 28th with Edmundo Gonzalez and Maduro as the candidates. Is the electoral system controlled by Chavismo reliable for managing an election? Is there a risk of fraud, or is it thought that the result must be by a sufficiently large margin to be immune to fraud?

Boris Muñoz: All of the above. International observation is essential to safeguard the process and minimize the chances of fraud. The internal organization of the coordination of the opposition through the committees to defend the vote is extremely important. Also, to trust that if the process reaches that point, it is because there is something we still cannot decipher, but that will be negotiated between the government and the opposition to allow a real transition, because otherwise, everything will be a charade. And I believe the charade is not in the interest of either party.

Luz Mely Reyes: Technically, the National Electoral Council can conduct an election with quality standards. That is why missions from the Carter Center, the European Union, and a UN exploratory panel visited recently to evaluate whether they should send observation missions.

You also see the contradictions within the government. On the one hand, they are inviting all these organizations to have a group of credible observers, and on the other, they are also increasing repressive actions.

But the most significant technical risk involves the electoral structure, which is the entire infrastructure that will allow the presence of polling station members and witnesses from opposition parties at all polling stations. The tactic that a National Electoral Council co-opted by the government could employ is also electoral reengineering. The government is not only thinking about this election but also about the 2025 election.

Technically, there should be 16 audits in this election, and the parties participating in the process, with candidates, have the right to have witnesses at those audits. In other words, they can evaluate how this whole process is going. The process has flaws in terms of electoral integrity guidelines, but there are still possibilities for making the election as competitive as possible.

Thank you, Luz Mely and Boris; I hope we can talk again within three months, and hopefully, there won’t be a short circuit that derails this electoral process, and we’ll see each other in July.

Luz Mely: See you sooner.

Boris Muñoz: Yes, we will keep our fingers crossed because all this is very fragile.

This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.


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Carlos F. Chamorro

Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.