Two decades have passed since María Corina Machado became known to the entire world. The Venezuelan politician was the scourge of Chavismo, the left-wing populist ideology that has ruled the South American country since the days of former president Hugo Chávez (1999-2013), who was followed by Nicolás Maduro. Machado was the first to call Chavismo a dictatorship, and one of the few people who told the powerful Hugo Chávez what she thought about him to his face. It drove him crazy. “You’ve just called me a thief,” the Bolivarian leader would scream at her. Machado was viewed as an iron lady, representing the radical wing of the opposition and defending the toughest form of confrontation. She dreamed of destroying Chavismo.
There are still things left from that younger Machado, but 20 years later, that is not the person that hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans voted for at the recent primary to find a rival for Maduro in the presidential election expected to be held next year. The María Corina Machado who on Sunday swept more than 90% of the votes still talks about defeating Chavismo, but she wants to do it through the ballot box and with the help of God instead of the U.S. army, driven by the strength of the pain of being a mother who has been separated from her three children, like so many others in that Venezuela of young exiles.
Machado, a 55-year-old industrial engineer by trade, had never really connected with a country that is politically further to the left of her own postulates. She only garnered support among the upper class to which her family has always belonged and among the diaspora. But in recent months she has become the closest thing to a princess of the people. Her sudden connection with the Venezuelan people was unexpected, but it has also suddenly ended the hopelessness that had impregnated society for years, as people focused on day-to-day survival amid the economic crisis rather than on defeating Chavismo. The failed strategies of the opposition in recent years did not take a toll on Machado, who had long since distanced herself from almost all of their decisions, so that it was not difficult for her to rebrand her name and message.
Thousands of people responded to her call from all parts of the country, from the richest to the poorest, even in Chavismo’s traditional voting grounds. Also abroad, where 7.7 million Venezuelans have emigrated in recent years. Widespread disappointment with the government and with an opposition that had created confusion by lurching so much, benefited this woman with clear ideas who wants to turn the economy around, and who can relate to the pain of so many broken families with a very powerful message: she, too, is a mother who misses her children, but who decided to stay in Venezuela to fight for a better country for herself and for others.
Chavismo attempted to undermine the rise of an uncomfortable figure with the announcement last June that Machado was being banned from holding public office for 15 years, in a legal move that attracted international criticism and relaunched Machado’s primary campaign inside and outside the country. But now it could be a brake on her presidential ambitions. In the agreements signed last week in Barbados between the Venezuelan government and the opposition, it was agreed that “all candidates and political parties” would be authorized, yet Chavismo has kept that possibility away from Machado. With popularity ratings much higher than Maduro’s, she could seriously jeopardize Chavismo’s permanence in power if elections are held with all democratic guarantees.
Machado defines herself and her party, Vente Venezuela, as “liberal” politically and economically. Her political vision involves a reduction of the state as a provider of public policies, encouraging entrepreneurship and promoting a free market to create wealth and jobs. Her vision of government is reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan or, in Latin America, Sebastián Piñera, a former president of Chile. Machado indeed looks at herself in those mirrors. “Margaret Thatcher had the courage to defend her values all her life against everyone who opposed her,” she tweeted in 2013, perhaps thinking of herself and the decade of political neglect that was still ahead of her before this recent victory.
Machado, who has brought together a diversity of opponents under her banner, adheres to that new current of politicians who refuse to be ideologically labeled. “If proposing that the eradication of poverty is a responsibility of society as a whole is a left-wing idea, then I am left-wing. If believing in personal freedom, in investment, in productivity is a right-wing issue, then I am right-wing,” she said in 2012. She has a tolerant and flexible position on issues such as abortion, and has asked to open a debate around its decriminalization in cases of rape; she also supports the use of medical marijuana and defends gay marriage. Although she describes herself as a religious person, she says that her faith will not be reflected in her political action.
The opposition candidate has proposed privatizing the state-owned oil giant Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), a taboo subject in Venezuelan politics, and returning to their owners all the companies that were expropriated by Chavismo, among which is Siderúrgica Venezolana, the company where Machado’s father (who died this year) once served as president of the Executive Committee. Machado has pledged to ease regulatory controls, to crack down on corruption, to push for a general amnesty for political prisoners, to promote outward growth and to resume contact with multilateral organizations.
Evidencing a clear influence from economists such as Ludwig Von Mises or Milton Friedman, Machado’s view of politics falls to the right of the traditional parties of Venezuelan democracy prior to the rise of Chavismo. Her vision is somewhat more American than European when it comes to the distribution of social funds to generate well-being, and she has a deeply anti-communist rhetoric. Instead of defending the traditional social democratic state of the 20th century, Machado proposes the reduction of welfare and ending the heavy influence of the oil-dependent state in the lives of the population, an idea put forward by Venezuelan thinkers that Machado frequently mentions, such as the novelist Arturo Uslar Pietri and the liberal intellectual Carlos Rangel.
Her attacks against Chavismo and her enmity with a large part of the opposition turned her into a solitary politician who now has the obligation to unite all those who want change. And based on the voter turnout at the primary, a majority of Venezuelans appear to want change. Machado is sure that Chavistas and opponents within the entire political spectrum now stand behind her. Her path to the presidential election will depend on this popular support, on the not always guaranteed union of all the opposition parties, and on the pressure that Washington may exert on Caracas. And there is still the government disqualification to contend with if she wants to run as a presidential candidate in 2024.
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