Venezuela targets main opposition leader in Maduro murder plot case

State prosecutor names María Corina Machado as suspect in assassination plan probe

María Corina Machado.
María Corina Machado.

On Wednesday, former Venezuelan congresswoman María Corina Machado was named as an official suspect in an alleged murder plot against President Nicolás Maduro.

Accompanied by her closest aides, the opposition leader took a bus especially rented for the occasion to Prosecutor General Katherine Harrigton’s office at 9am, where supporters welcomed her as she arrived. The meeting began at 10am and ended at 1pm local time. Machado was not taken into custody.

The former congresswoman has testified in this case before, just after the lawsuit was announced during a meeting of the government’s political high command in May. Jorge Rodríguez, the group’s spokesman and governor of Libertador, read several messages sent from an email account that supposedly proved Machado had ties to an alleged plot to assassinate the Venezuelan president. The opposition leader admitted that the account in question was hers but said she stopped using it after some personal photographs were published on social media platforms without her consent. Later, Google, at the request of attorney Pedro Mario Burelli, confirmed that the emails shown were fakes.

By naming Machado an official suspect, the government is closing in around opposition members who called on Maduro to step down

Machado’s lawyer, Tomás Arias, had a chance to review the file and discovered the criteria the Prosecutor General’s Office was using to decide the charges. “The entire reasoning rests on a political foundation,” he told EL PAÍS, though did not go into details. His viewpoint is in line with that of Machado and he said the accusations against her are reprisals for her stance against the Venezuelan government.

By naming Machado as an official suspect, the government is closing in around opposition members who called for Maduro to step down. After that announcement, skirmishes erupted in Caracas and other large cities, leading to 43 deaths. Hundreds of people were injured or in prison by June. The other leader of the group, former Chacao mayor Leopoldo López has been held in a military prison since February on four charges related to a march in downtown Caracas that led to an escalation in the demonstrations.

Meanwhile, Machado has paid the price for her decision to join these protests. She lost her congressional seat after National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello accused her of accepting Panama’s offer to cede the floor to her at a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS). A court order issued in June blocks her from leaving the country during the investigation thereby limiting her international lobbying efforts to condemn the Venezuelan government as a dictatorship that denies the human rights of opposition members.

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Still, Machado could say she has been lucky. On the eve of the meeting with Harrigton, her team feared she would suffer the same fate as López. They began a campaign on social media using the hashtag #yoestoyconmariacorina (#iamwithmariacorina), which became a trending topic in Venezuela. Her organization, Vente Venezuela, also published a note on its website that served as a reminder of all the lawsuits and personal attacks she has suffered since she emerged as an opposition leader to the Bolivarian Revolution. Her supporters stood in solidarity with her over her presumed imminent imprisonment. On Tuesday, a group of intellectuals published a statement condemning the judicial proceeedings. And Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino said accusing Machado of conspiring to assassinate the president was an exaggeration. “The evidence they are using is totally weak,” he said.

The only one who seemed optimistic was Machado herself. Just before heading in to the meeting, she gave an interview to presenter César Miguel Rondón’s popular radio show. “I am not going to give in; I am going to face this disgrace,” she said. For now, she has escaped prison. The Prosecutor General’s Office will continue its investigation and it may take months to decide whether to indict her or close the case.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

In the footsteps of Leopoldo López

A. M. (Caracas)

María Corina Machado and Leopoldo López are the leaders of the most vocal opposition group calling for the end of Venezuela’s current administration in order to begin the transition to democracy. Both have made it clear that they are not encouraging a coup d’état against President Nicólas Maduro. Instead, they want to find an article in the Venezuelan Constitution that would facilitate the president’s departure without causing any trauma.

Although the charges faced by both are different, their cases share a political foundation. The government considers Machado and López responsible for launching a wave of protests that kept officials on guard from February to June. Experts on constitutional law question the validity of the proceedings in both investigations. Venezuela’s penal code assumes that the accused is innocent until proven guilty and prefers not to hold defendants in custody during trial. But it did not go that way in López’s case.

López and Machado are facing a judicial system that has not issued any sentences against the interests of the government since 2004. This fact is proven in the recently published El Tribunal Supremo de Justicia al servicio de la Revolución, which compiled the sentences issued by three chambers of Venezuela's highest court and found a pattern: the administration announces a measure and, shortly after, court rulings provide judicial ratification.

That is how the government has gotten rid of several opposition leaders: Henrique Salas Romer, former presidential candidate in 1998; Manuel Rosales, who ran against Chávez in 2006 and now lives in exile in Panama; Leopoldo López; and now María Corina Machado. There is no indication as to how much time officials need to complete their investigation which, according to Machado’s attorneys, keeps her in limbo.

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