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As primaries near, Venezuela’s opposition warns of rising attacks: ‘It’s a policy of terror’

With less than two months to go to the October 22 vote, candidates have denounced growing threats and violence

Venezuela
Delsa Solórzano, who says she has received death threats, during a debate with other opposition candidates, in Caracas, Venezuela.LEONARDO FERNANDEZ VILORIA (REUTERS)

The Venezuelan opposition is preparing to hold primaries to decide who will face off against President Nicolás Maduro at the presidential elections, scheduled for 2024. But with less than two months to go to the October 22 vote, opposition candidates warn there has been a sharp rise in threats and attacks, with more than 20 incidents recorded so far. After the murder of the Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, Venezuelan opposition leaders, such as Delsa Solórzano, say they have received several death threats in direct messages on social media.

Maduro said that he would open an investigation into the alleged threats against Solórzano, and offered her state protection. But he also cast doubt on the politician’s allegations. “This investigation is going to be carried out, the truth is going to be discovered,” the president said Monday night on his program Con Maduro+(or, With Maduro), which is broadcast on state TV. “I think it is simply a set-up staged by malicious people because the threat is made in the name of Maduro, Diosdado [Cabello, a member of the National Assembly], the Bolivarian revolution. We have never, ever used terrorism, attacks or violence to resolve our political differences.”

In response to Maduro’s claim, Solórzano said that both she and other opposition leaders are followed by state intelligence officers as they campaign.

Last week, opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski was forced to suspend a campaign event in the city of Apure, when a group of 50 motorists, some hooded, took over the venue for the rally. At least 10 people were injured, according to Capriles, while the sound equipment and chairs that were to be used at the event were destroyed. This is the seventh attack that Capriles or members of his team have experienced during their campaign.

Capriles blamed the attacks on pro-government groups. “Today we have seen the violent, fascist face of those who are in power,” he said. “Without a doubt, the goal of all this is to stop us from touring the country, to slow us down and paralyze us, to put fear into structures, to put fear into the leaders who are working in the communities.”

A month earlier, opposition leader María Corina Machado — who is leading in the polls and has received the brunt of the attacks — said that her party’s headquarters in the border state of Táchira was graffitied with death threats allegedly from Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) guerilla group.

The attacks on opposition candidates include scuffles and blows at public gatherings; the closure of hotels and convention halls hired for rallies; the shutdown of radio stations that broadcast interviews with them; the arrest of sound engineers hired for events; and roadblocks set up by collectives or armed shock groups. Opposition leader Freddy Superlano was even stripped of his passport when he returned from Colombia a few days ago. This has taken place during the lead-up to the official primary campaign, which begins on August 22.

Opposition political alliance Plataforma Unitaria (Unitary Platform) denounced the threats and attacks against candidates as a “policy of terror.” “The persecution of all the candidates is a state policy that reflects the fear and terror that they have of the primary,” declared Simón Calzadilla, the coalition’s leader, last Thursday.

In addition to violence, Venezuela’s opposition also has to contend with logistical and bureaucratic hurdles. The National Primaries Commission indicated that it will facilitate more than 3,000 voting points, but it has not yet announced where they will be. What’s more, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) is still in limbo after its members’ shock resignation in June. The move — considered an effort to hinder the primary race — means that the body will not organize nor fund the opposition primaries. In response, the opposition has been raffling off telephones, televisions and other electronic equipment in a bid to raise money for the vote.

A new CNE should be chosen in the coming days, but negotiations are still ongoing. Elvis Amoroso, the comptroller general of Venezuela, may be one of the officials selected for the CNE. He has recently disqualified several of the opposition candidates in the race, including Machado.

Venezuela’s Supreme Court could also invalidate the primaries if it rules in favor of a petition made by Luis Alejandro Ratti, a businessman linked to the so-called scorpions —a sector that separated from the opposition and made a pact with Maduro. The other threat is the possibility that Maduro brings forward the election to this year or the beginning of 2024 — even though they should take place at the end of next year. “Diosdado says that there could be elections this year,” said Maduro at a military rally on Wednesday.

The Venezuelan government is no longer speaking of reaching a mutual understanding with the opposition. Negotiations appear to have stalled two years after they started. There has been no further progress on the agreement to create a fund with Venezuelan assets frozen abroad to address the humanitarian emergency in the country — a deal that was signed last November in Mexico. The Maduro government has used this lack of progress as an excuse to refuse any concessions. It says it will not budge unless international sanctions are lifted. But the biggest threat to the fund is the creditors of Venezuela’s debt: the country has been in default since 2017.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government has hardened its discourse. The administration said it will not accept election observers from the European Union during the 2024 presidential election, while the Supreme Court has sacked the head of the Venezuelan Red Cross. The opposition and the international community are calling for greater democratic guarantees, including allowing all candidates to compete in the election — a request frequently made by the United States and the EU. But these efforts may be thwarted.

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