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María Corina Machado, leader of the Venezuelan opposition: ‘Stepping aside and having another candidate run is not an option’

The winner of the primaries thinks that there is a sector of Chavismo that is willing to move towards an orderly transition and accept that they will not be in power

María Corina Machado, in Caracas on Friday.
María Corina Machado, in Caracas on Friday.Gaby Oraa

Venezuela is difficult to classify. Where some see an authoritarian government, others see a dictatorship and others, although in fewer and fewer, see a misunderstood democracy. On October 22, in a country home to political prisoners, where Chavismo — the populist ideology linked to former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez — controls all state institutions, two million Venezuelans took to the streets to vote for an opposition leader to face off against Nicolás Maduro in a presidential election. And not just any leader. More than 90% chose María Corina Machado, the representative of the radical wing of the opposition, to be the opposition candidate in 2024.

The result was a surprise for everyone, including Machado, who for years has been overshadowed by other opposition leaders. And it was a shock for the opposition, who would never have imagined that Machado — someone who they considered a loose cannon with little influence — would sweep to victory in the polls. And, above all, it was a surprise for Chavismo, which is already working to try to annul the results of the opposition primaries, which gave Machado an overwhelming win.

Machado spoke to EL PAÍS from her Caracas office on Friday, explaining that this was just the beginning of an uncertain path. Chavismo has barred her from public office, and while it has done so on shaky legal grounds, it prevents her from participating in next year’s presidential elections. It is no secret that Maduro does not want to face Machado in the presidential elections, which the opposition and the government agreed to following negotiations in Barbados. The agreement struck between the two parties specified that all candidates in the primaries would be allowed to register for the presidential race, but the government has already ruled out the possibility of lifting the ban on Machado. She, however, is clinging to her victory: “A Plan B would be to ignore the October 22 mandate.”

Question. Why do you think people came out to vote for you in the primaries?

Answer. There was triple the estimated turnout. The emotion that arose was absolutely transversal. At 1 p.m., the ballots were running out in areas typically associated with Chavismo, and that happened in towns, cities, and in middle-class and working-class places. It was very impressive. I feel that this suggests the end of a cycle and the demonstration that Venezuelan society is united in a desire for change that was felt with enormous force throughout Venezuela. There is a mandate that creates a great responsibility.

Q. Did the turnout take Chavismo by surprise?

A. It took us all by surprise. In a country where there is no fuel or public transportation and total media censorship, there was concern about how people were going to find out [about the primaries] if they have no electricity, no internet and no media. But eventually people found out. We received an important lesson in that we must trust a society that is willing to embrace freedom.

Q. Have you felt the support of the entire opposition?

A. Yes, it is very exciting because I not only received support from the parties that are in the Platform [Unitaria de Venezuela] and those that were involved with the primary, but also from some regional and local political organizations that have been moved after what happened. We need to create a sweeping national agreement with a fundamental consensus that must be established and advanced. This is the beginning of the end, but there are many challenges ahead.

Q. What strategy must be followed now?

A. We must not underestimate the strategy of the regime we’re facing, and understand that they, Maduro and his entourage, have been very explicit that they are not willing to leave power under any circumstances. We must consolidate and expand the social movement, which has started to be able to speak to Venezuelans who may be afraid of the change that we represent. We have to take the initiative and make Venezuelans feel that it will be for the benefit of everyone. There are some actors who for various reasons may feel close to Maduro, but who in the end, would benefit if this process advances and there is an orderly and sustained transition. I am referring to some governments in Latin America, such as Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico. It is necessary to convey the willingness to coordinate forces with all these actors in order to generate incentives for the regime itself, which will lead to a more vigorous and legitimate negotiation.

Q. Do you trust that Chavismo will lift your ban from public office?

A. I have known many red lines, for example, it was said that the primaries were not going to be held. And that they would never allow me to compete, let alone win them. My ban is not legal, it is political, and it was before the primaries. It sent the message that people should not vote for me. And it didn’t work, it was quite the opposite. It posed a challenge to the system. What happens now? A process with many dimensions moves forward. Chavismo understands that it has lost its social base and to some extent its repressive capacity. The bases of the armed forces and security forces also have the feeling that something is happening. There are great internal tensions within this heterarchical structure, with multiple interests. This is not a conventional dictatorship. And they need money, because they have looted the country. There are many incentives and pressures to make them respect the agreement that was signed in Barbados. This agreement is associated with the fulfillment of a series of commitments that include that all those who competed in the primaries can register in the next election.

Q. Do you think there has to be a Plan B in case this authorization does not occur?

A. We have to focus on respecting the mandate. A Plan B is to ignore October 22 [the date the primary was held]. What needs to happen is for Maduro to understand that it is in his own interest to stick to what he promised in Barbados.

Q. But if the ban is not lifted, would you have to find another way to participate in the elections or defend the results of the October 22 vote?

A. Those are not the only two options. Defending the mandate of October 22 does not mean withdrawing from the electoral process, quite the opposite. The mandate is to build the force and design a strategy to have competitive elections so that Venezuelans can elect the person they voted for in the primaries.

Q. But if they prevent you from registering as a candidate...

A. We have 12 months to go. We have been creating the conditions for this situation to be reversed. It is an element of political order that in the end will depend on the balance of political forces.

Q. If the ban is not lifted, would you step aside and allow another candidate to run?

A. That is not an option. We are going to strengthen our force to ensure that the elections are clean and free and that means respecting the Barbados agreement, which states that the winning candidate in the primaries can register for the elections.

Q. What does Chavismo’s latest efforts against the primaries indicate?

A. The position within Chavismo is not homogeneous. There is a sector that, because of what happened on October 22 and the shock waves that it caused, thinks that we must move towards an orderly transition and accept that it will be in the opposition for a time, and then try to return, similar to what happened in Brazil with the Workers Party. They have started talking about it. There is another sector within Chavismo that believes that with its control over the electoral system they could defeat us in the elections. And another sector says that under no circumstances will they compete against me.

Q. Is the negotiation process in Barbados going to continue?

A. I can’t be sure, I just think it’s too early to reach a conclusion. These tensions within Chavismo exist and will depend on which sector prevails.

Q. Is a democratic transition going to be negotiated with Chavismo?

A. That is already underway, but there are many other aspects that must be the subject of negotiation and that are not included in the agreement. Part of the problem we have in the opposition is a crisis of representation, and the primary resolved it. From now on, we will have much greater strength in a negotiation process.

Q. What type of transition process would you be willing to accept? Would you give any judicial guarantee or some kind of amnesty to Chavismo leaders?

A. A negotiation involves giving incentives and ensuring that the cost of remaining in power is greater than the cost of accepting leaving in a transition. And that means, of course, that certain guarantees must be given. That is a product of negotiation and not of a public discussion.

Q. Imagine that you win the presidential elections in 2024. How do you imagine the future of Maduro?

A. I see a bright future for Venezuela. Those who have been part of the system and have not committed major crimes can rest assured that they will face a fair justice system, not like the one we have been denied. With other actors, we will have to see what the terms are for each of them. What I can guarantee is that this is not a process that seeks revenge or retaliation, that would be repeating the practices of Chavismo. We seek justice for our country.

Q. What would be the worst mistake that the opposition could make now?

A. To ignore the mandate of October 22, which goes far beyond the election of a candidate. It ratifies the love for freedom, for Venezuela, for our children and the willingness of all Venezuelans to fight with firmness, intelligence and solidarity among all Venezuelans.

Q. What led you to believe that negotiating with Chavismo to seek a democratic solution was necessary when you previously argued the opposite?

A. I have insistently stated that a negotiation has to be clear in its purposes. What I have criticized have been the enormous flaws in the previous negotiations. There have been 15, this is not even remotely the first. In these processes, Maduro obtained money, legitimacy and time. I feel that on this occasion there is the possibility of introducing important changes, one of them was clearly building forces through the primaries. There is a change in the context and based on this we can advance in a negotiation that is not to improve the conditions of the status quo, but which is aimed at the democratic transition.

Q. Will your ban from public office be part of the negotiation?

A. It already has been.

Q. With little success then.

A. I don’t know why that’s what you conclude if the process is starting.

Q. Because for Chavismo your ban is a red line.

A. Surely you read [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken’s statement where he clearly said that the authorization of the candidates who participated in the primaries is a key point within the agreement that was signed.

Q. What is your opinion on the role of the United States, which has just lifted the oil, gas and gold sanctions on Venezuela?

A. I feel that there is enormous concern and even justified skepticism that the regime is going to keep its promise. The incentives are happening present, but they will be fulfilled over time. So far, it is the U.S. government which has the power to create incentives. And they have been very emphatic that if this is not met, the licenses will be reverted. I want to trust that the agreement is fulfilled by both parties.

Q. Have you spoken with Leopoldo López?

A. Yes, I have spoken to everyone.

Q. And with Henrique Capriles?

A. No, but I have spoken with many people from his party. I have spoken to everyone and everyone is invited to be part of the command we are building.

Q. Did Colombian President Gustavo Petro call you?

A. I have sent him a message. I am approaching all the presidents of the region. One of the most important things for the presidential elections is that Venezuelans abroad can vote. Colombia, Peru and Chile are countries that can make Maduro understand that this is a right that must be respected.

Q. What is your biggest fear right now?

A. What worried me most was that Venezuelans would lose confidence in ourselves if the primary did not happen. That would have been devastating. It has shown us what we are capable of and that is what we have to take care of the most. It is breaking down the barriers that the regime built between us.

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