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Venezuela 2024: Looking beyond María Corina Machado

Any real change must go through those in power. The question is: what can be done if logic tells Chavistas not to give it up?

María Corina Machado, candidata en las elecciones primarias de la oposición en Venezuela, este miércoles en Caracas.
María Corina Machado, on September 6.LEONARDO FERNANDEZ VILORIA (REUTERS)

The campaign for the Venezuelan opposition primaries has reactivated interest in the 2024 presidential election and the hope for peaceful change. Of the many challenges to taking advantage of this moment, it is essential to carefully assess whether an orderly transition is possible. Not only does the fate of the country’s most recent political star, Maria Corina Machado, depend on it, so too does the fate of the opposition and a sector of Chavismo, the populist ideology linked to former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

September was a month of intense movement, with different factors seeking some understanding between Venezuelan decision makers and pressure groups. In international circles, there is a lot of talk about the Venezuelan opposition’s fatigue, but few take into account that Chavismo is perhaps equally exhausted.

The opposition primaries are advancing, but they are as fragile as a person with glass bones. Machado’s rise has made her a hot potato for the opposition and the ruling party. Some believe that the growing support for Machado — who has adopted a leader-of-the people approach — may narrow the space for eventual negotiation.

There are those who believe that Machado’s popularity is like an Alka-Seltzer, and that it will fizzle out just as it did with Juan Guaidó, who in 2019 proclaimed himself the leader of an “interim government,” and many others leaders who ended up in exile. I have the impression that Machado’s rise is the expression of a great need for change and a generalized discontent that is reflected throughout Venezuelan society, including the grassroot supporters of Chavismo.

Last August, a survey by the firm Delphos found that María Corina Machado was leading the opposition primaries, with 74% voting intention. At all of her events, she is swamped by people. At a recent rally in eastern Venezuela, it was like she was Shakira at the MTV awards. Machado crowd-surfaced, until the attendees, lifted her — like a goddess — onto a platform where she gave a speech.

Opinion polls also show that the government of Nicolás Maduro is not only unpopular, but that 55% would vote for the opposition in the event of a national election — even though the candidate has not been decided yet. When it comes to names, Machado is leading all the polls.

Being ineffective in governance while resorting to human rights violations to remain in power also has a cost downstream. Unlike Hugo Chávez, who in political terms was an aircraft carrier, Maduro is like a submarine with ballast. Until now, the Chavismo leadership has conveyed the idea that it is willing to stay below its waterline. But that leadership knows that at this moment it is impossible to win an election with Maduro as the candidate.

Chavismo supporters have been hit by a humanitarian emergency, an economic crisis, an exodus, and disenchantment with the group’s leadership. Furthermore, like the rest of the people in Venezuela, most of them hold the government responsible for the dire state of the country.

The Maduro government carried its usual moves to block the opposition from the electoral route: disqualification, intimidation, bullying, co-opting candidates and changing the National Electoral Council (CNE). When this did not achieve the goal, it went a step further. The newly formed CNE agreed to provide a “comprehensive, constitutional and legal technical service” for the opposition primaries. Last June, the National Primary Commission (CNP), the governing body of the opposition vote, requested this assistance from the former CNE. When the rectors were forced to step down, the CNP decided to continue to hold the primaries without the body’s help. Although the current offer seems more like a threat, within a few hours, the opposition leadership had met with the new electoral directors and agreed to create a mixed commission.

All this has happened with less than a month to go until the October 22 primary, and with three of the candidates disqualified, including Machado.

With this recent move, the Maduro government appears to want the opposition leadership to be the one to dethrone Machado. In this way, they would be killing two birds with one stone. If the Venezuelan opposition pushes Machado out, they run the great risk of throwing away the opportunity to effect change via the ballot box.

In Venezuela, we see the movie Groundhog Day as a metaphor to summarize all the frustrated attempts there have been to achieve change. This time, with all the opposition headed down the electoral route, there may be a new opportunity to change the ending of this film.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines, partial agreements are being sought. The United States plays a key role in these deals. The efforts are focused on getting Chavismo to agree to set a date for the 2024 presidential election, while the Maduro government is working, still unsuccessfully, to have sanctions lifted.

Recently, Francisco Palmieri, the Chief of Mission of the Venezuelan Affairs Unit (VAU), explained the conditions for relaxing sanctions to an Atlantic Council event in Washington, D.C. The main emphasis is on the release of political prisoners, an end to disqualifying opposition candidates and a fair election process in 2024.

For Geoff Ramsey, a specialist from the Adrienne Arsht Center for Latin America, Palmieri has given signs that although the window for negotiation is open, it will not stay open indefinitely. Ramsey believes that the ball is in Maduro’s court and that, if his government does not act in time, they will miss the opportunity because the United States will become involved with their own 2024 presidential election.

I think the approach of Tamara Taraciuk, director of the Peter Bell Rule Program on the Rule of Law at the Inter-American Dialogue, is key. She is thinking about how to provide a golden bridge for people in power to allow an orderly transition.

Any real change must go through those in power, but what can be done if logic tells them that it’s best to try to hold on to it? Perhaps in this space, it is worth continuing to explore ideas that could help lead to a peaceful solution. How much longer will the Chavista elite be willing to remain in their own hamster wheel?

Everyone has an opportunity to do things differently and the best example continues to be set by the people of Venezuela, who, in all surveys, have expressed their overwhelming support for the electoral route. This movie has been seen over and over again, but this time, leaders have a chance to change it.

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