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Déjà vu? Electoral bans, arrests, attacks, threats again part of Venezuelan presidential race

Assassination plots, arrest warrants, numerous detentions all sorts of verbal attacks against adversaries and other government actions have marked the start of 2024 for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his allies

Regina Garcia Cano
Wednesday 31 January 2024 05:00 GMT

Déjà vu? Feels like it.

Assassination plots, arrest warrants for journalists and human rights defenders, attacks against adversaries – from the belittling kind to the judicial type – and other associated government actions have marked the start of 2024 for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his allies. Add international condemnation and economic sanctions, and the reality of a presidential election year in the South American country becomes clear.

And, once again, the question is: How democratic will the election be?

Venezuelans were promised a presidential election in the second half of 2024 after Maduro and the faction of the opposition backed by the United States government reached an agreement in October. The opposing sides also agreed to recognize and respect a party’s right to choose a candidate freely; take steps that would reverse government decisions blocking politicians from running for office; and invite international electoral observers.

The government over the past three months has shown it is willing to test the limits of the agreement, discrediting the opposition's presidential primary, arresting numerous perceived or actual adversaries, and repeatedly characterizing members of the opposition as hate-spewing criminals.

But the biggest test came Friday, when Venezuela’s highest cour t – aligned with Maduro’s government – blocked the presidential candidacy of María Corina Machado by upholding an administrative decision that bans her on running for office for 15 years.

“I don’t think we have any evidence that Maduro plans to allow a competitive election so far,” said Geoff Ramsey, senior analyst on Venezuela at the Atlantic Council think tank. “What we are seeing is the government making clear that they don’t plan on going anywhere any time soon.”

The ban has not sidelined Machado so far. The former lawmaker on Monday told supporters and reporters that Venezuela will have a presidential election in 2024 in which she “will defeat Nicolás Maduro.” A date for the vote has not been set.

But Jorge Rodríguez, Maduro’s chief negotiator and the leader of the country’s National Assembly, quickly dismissed the challenge.

“How can a human being who is one of 30 million Venezuelans going to say... that ‘Without me, there will be no elections,’” Rodríguez said. “That matter has been settled.”

That’s also how the government saw similar disputes in the leadup to the last presidential election, which resulted in Maduro’s re-election.

At the time, Maduro and the opposition had also agreed to work on electoral conditions. But the talks ended in February 2018 after the government was not willing to commit to free and fair conditions and its opponents refused to recognize a parallel congress devised by the ruling party after it lost the majority of the National Assembly during the 2015 election.

Shortly after, the government scheduled the election for May 20, and major parties chose to boycott the contest as prominent leaders were barred from office or forced into exile after authorities opened judicial proceedings against them following a deadly protest movement seeking the president’s removal.

That election is widely considered a sham by the international community. It further alienated Maduro and drew economic sanctions against his government.

Less than three months after his re-election, Maduro tied opposition leaders to what the government described as an assassination attempt against the president in which drones armed with explosives detonated when he was delivering a speech to hundreds of soldiers broadcast live on television.

Years went by until Maduro and the U.S.-backed faction of the opposition, known as the Unitary Platform, appeared to have finally had a breakthrough, reaching a deal in October to work toward leveling the playing field for the 2024 election. Such was the progress that the U.S. granted Maduro some of his much-sought sanctions relief, and the opposition's negotiating bloc held its primary election days later.

Machado, the clear frontrunner for months, unsurprisingly won the contest. But the participation of more than 2.4 million voters stunned opposition adversaries and allies, who had expected roughly about a million people to cast ballots due to organizational challenges and government obstacles.

Machado's victory, with more than 90% of the vote, came despite the government announcing a 15-year ban on her running for office in June. She was able to participate in the primary because the effort was organized by a commission independent of Venezuela’s electoral body, the National Electoral Council.

Machado in December filed a claim with Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice arguing the ban was null and void and seeking an injunction to protect her political rights. The court on Friday upheld the ban, which alleges fraud and tax violations and accuses her of seeking the economic sanctions the U.S. imposed on Venezuela last decade.

Ramsey said the opposition should come up with a alternatives to Machado as Chavismo — the political movement started by Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez — will never allow her to run.

“If Chavismo were to imagine its sworn enemy, they would picture the face of María Corina,” he said. “She represents everything that Chavismo opposes. She represents the political and economic elite that governed the country for years before Chávez.”

Like the court, National Electoral Council is also stacked with Chavistas. The head of the electoral council is now Elvis Amoroso, who signed Machado’s administrative ban last year when he was the country's comptroller.

Ruling-party loyalists also include Attorney General Tarek William Saab, who after the primary election opened criminal investigations against some of its organizers and later issued arrest warrants for three of Machado’s campaign staffers. In addition, a longtime collaborator of Machado, Roberto Abdul, with whom she co-founded a pro-democracy group more than two decades ago, was detained after the primary.

A high-profile prisoner swap between the U.S. and Venezuela led to Abdul’s release and allowed the three staffers to leave the foreign embassy where they sought refuge. But three other staffers were detained last week in connection to what Saab, Maduro and Rodríguez have described as failed assassination attempts against the president.

The U.S. responded to Friday's court ruling by revoking the relief it granted in October to Venezuela's state-owned mining company, Compañía General de Minería de Venezuela, C.A, known as Minerven. It also gave Maduro until April to meet conditions of the electoral agreement to avoid losing additional relief.

The moves by the Biden administration drew the rage of Rodríguez and prompted the government to warn the Biden administration that it will stop accepting deportation flights Feb. 13, the deadline for U.S. mining companies to wind down operations tied to Minerven.

“'You have until April,' they say. Save yourselves the lapse, shitty Yankees!" Rodríguez said during a speech before the National Assembly. Under the agreement with the opposition, he added, the decision of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice “must be respected.”

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