Manuel Rosales: ‘If María Corina can run, I will give her my candidacy’

The governor of Zulia denies having betrayed the Venezuelan opposition’s unity candidate and insists that he registered by surprise to ensure that voters will have a choice in the July 28 election

Manuel Rosales
Opposition candidate Manuel Rosales in Maracaibo, on March 27.Henry Chirinos (EFE)

Manuel Rosales is a classic figure within the Venezuelan opposition. The years go by, time may destroy everything in its path, but if there is something that survives, it is the Chavista regime and, running parallel to it, the incombustible figure of Rosales, who likes to adjust and stretch his suit while greeting supporters with one hand, in the manner of the dignitaries of the 1980s. In 2006 he faced Hugo Chávez in a presidential election and lost. Anyone else would have given up, but we are not dealing with anyone else: we are talking about a survivor. Rosales, 71, has been twice elected governor of the state of Zulia, a position from which he has managed to coexist peacefully with Chavismo — which has now tolerated his surprise candidacy to the July 28 presidential election while banning the rising figure of María Corina Machado, the opposition’s top candidate.

Rosales lives with ambiguity. In 2009 he went into exile in Peru after fleeing accusations of corruption made by Chavismo, and did not return until 2014, when he was arrested and imprisoned in El Helicoide, the political prison par excellence of Caracas. Did he fall from grace? Did he fade away? No, he did not. Upon leaving prison, he ran for governor and defeated the ruling party. Rosales, who has called for the end of international sanctions imposed on Venezuela, is one of the few members of the opposition who has a direct connection to Miraflores Palace, the presidential residence.

After carefully cultivating a moderate position in recent years and staying away from street protests, Rosales has now managed to cleverly position himself as one of the accepted opposition candidates for the upcoming presidential election, after both Machado and her replacement, Corina Yoris, were prevented from registering as candidates. The leader of the Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Time) party easily navigates these confusing political times that are so similar to himself.

With Machado disqualified, the main opposition coalition Unitary Platform is still looking for a unity candidate to back. The question is whether Rosales is that person. Working in his favor is the fact that he has taken one of the most important governorships in the country away from Chavismo, and that he enjoys strong popularity in that territory, where his management gets generally good reviews. Nor can it be denied that a part of the country that believes in democracy has faith in him. However, there are many who suspect that he may have made an agreement with President Nicolás Maduro and that his true intentions are to help cement Chavismo into power. That opinion is widespread in the country. In that case, Rosales would be a false opponent who is simply there to whitewash an electoral process that the international community has been viewing with suspicion ever since Machado was removed from the presidential race. There is no point in speculating because only Rosales knows what his ultimate motivations are. Interviewing him means entering the swampy waters of mystery.

Question. Were you preparing to be a candidate?

Answer. We decided not to register for the primaries because there were already too many candidates and a very wide dispersion of options. We promoted and supported them, and when María Corina’s victory took place, we immediately recognized her. We have condemned her disqualification as unjust. I told María Corina herself that our candidacy card was at her disposal [a party’s candidate can be changed until a few days before the election]. Unable to register, she nominated Corina Yoris, whose merits everyone recognizes. There was talk of a change of candidate, and Omar Barboza was proposed, but the government also vetoed him. Time continued to pass. In that extreme situation, we made that decision, thinking about how serious it would be to leave the country without an electoral option.

Q. It has been said that you’ve been allowed to be a candidate to facilitate the task of re-election of Maduro, and that is why you were able to register without problems.

A. There was a list of figures that Chavismo had already accepted, such as Gerardo Blyde, Ramón Guillermo Aveledo or the elected governors of the opposition. But no one wanted to be a candidate.

Q. Why does María Corina Machado say that your registration was a betrayal?

A. I’m not going to wade into that controversy. I think I did the right thing, saving the democratic forces from abstention. I have said that if an agreement is reached and María Corina can be a candidate, or appoint a successor, I will yield my candidacy.

Q. Do you think that Nicolás Maduro will hand over power if he is defeated?

A. I am neither an avenger nor a messiah. I am an instrument that can express the desire for political change in the country, which is 80% of the population, and includes part of Chavismo. We have the power to express our opinion and decide our future, that much cannot be delegated.

Q. How do you evaluate the political conditions of 2024 compared to those of 2018?

A. The Chavista government and its political model are more than exhausted. It already was in 2018, but some militant spirit remained. Now people are fed up. Five-dollar salaries, no public services, no healthcare, a destroyed oil industry. I think there is a genuine interest in change.

Q. Do you rule out any kind of rapprochement with the opposition factions that are now criticizing you?

A. From the beginning, I knew that criticism would come. I respect that position, I am a democrat. The will for change in the country is very great, the destruction is very deep. That will can be expressed through me or through another candidate. What I aspire to is for change to come without violence. A difficult process is coming: the elected president will take six months to take office, with a parliament, public powers, a national assembly, a judiciary, governorships and mayoralties controlled by Chavismo. A transition has to be planned here, of reunion, of respect for others, of putting the country on the road again.

Q. Do you feel prepared for the amount of pressure you will receive with Chavismo as your adversary?

A. It is part of the costs of a political career as a democrat. I have experienced firsthand the consequences of this struggle: I have been a presidential candidate, a governor, a political fighter, I was imprisoned for a year and a half, and spent six years in exile. I got out of jail through negotiations, as has happened to all politicians.

Q. Do you think you can govern Venezuela? Will the Armed Forces, the Chavista judges, and radical Chavismo accept it?

A. I am certain that I have the ability to dialogue, to negotiate, to converse, to give in when necessary and to move forward when we can do so. Most political currents and social movements agree that this is a unique opportunity. If Chavismo wins again, there will be more sanctions, more disinvestment, more hunger, new massive waves of people fleeing the country.

Q. Have you been able to exchange impressions with the Chavista leaders about the future of the country, the elections, public peace, the constitution, democracy?

A. We have had institutional meetings with Nicolás Maduro, with his ministers, with people from the higher echelons of government. Several times they have told us that, if they lose the elections, they are willing to surrender power. We have had good relations with military personnel, whom we respect even if they do not think the same as we do. That’s the problem, we have been denying each other’s ideas for 25 years.

Q. What would have to happen so that you don’t have the same experience as Henri Falcón in 2018, when he presented himself as a candidate willing to make a transition and ended up denouncing fraud?

A. They are different circumstances. We are part of the Unitary Platform, we have not divided it nor do we make isolated decisions. We are willing to yield. In 2018, we refused to abstain. It was the decision that was imposed, which we abided by, and it was a big mistake. Henri had his merits, he made a great effort. But we hope to do better. In the 2018 elections there was not the desire to vote that exists now.

Q. Personalities from the democratic camp have expressed their willingness to support you, but distrust is also widespread. It is feared that you are part of a compromise to validate a hypothetical victory by Nicolás Maduro.

A. They said the same thing when I was a candidate for the governorship of Zulia, and we won back the governorship. They said it was a betrayal and that it was validating the regime. It was a very hard war. I faced all that, I won, and here we are: we’ve recovered the majority of the mayor’s offices, we are running things and moving forward without persecuting anyone and without asking people who they voted for to provide them with a service. That is the example we want to give.

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