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Venezuela’s ban on opposition candidate María Corina Machado strains international relations

The U.S. presses President Maduro to let all opponents run for office and to release more political prisoners

María Corina Machado
Venezuelan opposition leader María Corina Machado.MIGUEL GUTIERREZ (EFE)
Florantonia Singer

The disqualification of María Corina Machado as a presidential candidate jeopardizes the recent international progress Venezuela has made. The White House has given President Nicolás Maduro a two-month ultimatum to allow disqualified opposition candidates to participate in the upcoming elections. The United States also gave any U.S. entities conducting transactions with a Venezuelan state-owned gold mining firm until February 13 to wind them down, revoking one of the concessions granted after the Barbados agreements with opposition leaders. These moves directly respond to the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the ban on Machado and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, despite Machado’s victory in the primaries last October.

The April deadline is subject to the expiration of the decrees signed last November granting licenses to United States oil companies. Washington agreed to ease some sanctions to encourage the Venezuelan government to resume negotiations with the opposition for a democratic solution to the country’s ongoing crisis. Although this sanctions relief by the U.S. had a limited impact on the country’s economy, it did mark a significant initial step.

The Maduro regime had its own interpretation of the Barbados agreements. While it opened the door for four minor candidates to participate in the upcoming elections, it blocked opposition front-runner Machado and Capriles, a veteran politician who ran against Maduro in the 2013 elections. The United States is clearly unhappy and is trying to keep the negotiation process going by gradually rolling back concessions. “They’ve got till the spring to honor their commitments,” said John Kirby, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council. “They’ve got decisions they have to make before we weigh what decisions we’ll take.”

Venezuela’s enduring economic and political crisis shows no signs of abating. Machado hasn’t stopped campaigning, while Maduro stubbornly digs in and risks a breakdown in its recent rapprochement with Washington. Jorge Rodríguez, president of Parliament and head of the delegation negotiating with the U.S. and opposition leaders, says the ban on Machado is irreversible and accused her of being involved in a corruption scheme during Juan Guaidó's interim presidency. The ban stems from the same 2014 investigation citing alleged irregularities in Machado’s declaration of assets while serving as a legislator.

The Venezuelan government won some sanctions relief recently that enabled global oil companies to resume doing business with PDVSA, the state-owned oil company. It also successfully negotiated the exchange of Alex Saab for detained Americans and political prisoners. Saab had been arrested and jailed in Miami on money laundering charges. The Venezuelan government values Saab, and Maduro said he acted as a “special envoy” to help Venezuela survive crippling international financial sanctions. Saab now heads the Venezuelan International Investment Center. Meanwhile, the U.S. recently approved deportation flights to Venezuela to address immigration pressures, a priority for President Biden, who faces a tough re-election fight this year.

The Venezuelan opposition continues to face heavy legal defeats and harassment from the Maduro regime. The government unfoundedly accused Machado’s team and others of five different assassination plots, and arrested the individuals implicated in the conspiracy. These alleged assassination plans were used to accuse the opposition of violating the Barbados agreements, which further undermines the front-running candidate striving to bring about a change in government after 25 years under Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. Machado says she’s carefully watching the negotiations with the U.S., and intends to challenge the Supreme Court’s decision in order to stay in the race. But the ruling regime has shown no signs that it’s willing to relax its stranglehold on power in Venezuela.

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