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Venezuela’s Primary Sweep Puts Maduro and Biden in the Hot Seat

Machado casts her primary election ballot, with her children by her side, in Caracas on Oct. 22. Photographer: Ariana Cubillos/AP

Both men have a lot riding on a new deal to allow sanctioned crude back on the market. A decisive win by opposition candidate María Corina Machado complicates things.

By Patricia Laya / bloomberg.com
October 25, 2023

Dressed in a white silk shirt and wearing a rosary around her neck, María Corina Machado appeared calm and collected under the blazing Caracas sun. Stopping to smile and hug supporters, the aspiring politician worked her way down a line of Venezuelans waiting to vote in this past Sunday’s presidential primary to elect an opposition candidate who will face off against incumbent Nicolás Maduro next year.

“My hands are shaking,” said 47-year-old marketing executive María Elena Ramírez, after casting her vote at a polling station in another part of Caracas. “It’s exciting to feel hopeful again,” she said, having waited a little more than two hours to mark a paper ballot. “We have to do whatever it takes to get out of this situation. I’m with María Corina until the end.”

Ramírez was among the almost 2 million Venezuelans who cast their vote for Machado, a onetime federal legislator whom Maduro’s government has barred from holding public office, alleging fraud and tax violations. It has also accused her of lobbying for the economic sanctions the US imposed on Venezuela beginning in 2017.

Machado was the clear favorite among the 10 candidates going into Sunday’s vote. She recently reintroduced herself to the Venezuelan public after a half-decade out of the limelight, capitalizing on growing disillusionment with the leading figures in the country’s often fractious opposition. Supporters describe her as strong-minded and true to her words. They’re drawn to the market-friendly policies she proposes that would roll back the state’s involvement in almost all areas of the economy. And whereas she once resisted making concession to rivals within the opposition, nowadays she seeks out allies across the political spectrum, looking to unite around the shared goal of ousting Maduro.

Still, her overwhelming victory, with 92% of the vote, blew past most projections and now presents a significant test of Maduro’s commitment to democratic reform and to an incipient thaw in relations with the US. If allowed to contest the presidency in elections that are supposed to take place in the second half of 2024, Machado would be the biggest threat Maduro has faced in 10 years in office. Venezuela’s traditional opposition parties have refused to take part in any elections since 2017, saying there’s no chance of a fair vote.

Machado’s strong showing will add pressure to an agreement signed on Oct. 17 that commits Maduro to take on all challengers in an election supervised by international observers. One day later, the Biden administration announced it was suspending certain US sanctions targeting Maduro’s government and Venezuela’s state-run oil company, PDVSA. The relief is contingent on Maduro’s government upholding its obligations under the electoral road map, including demonstrating progress in restoring the eligibility of previously banned candidates, such as Machado, by the end of November.

“María Corina’s triumph is stellar for her and for the Venezuelan people, but for negotiations, it’s a challenge,” says Luis Vicente León, director of Caracas consultant Datanalisis. “With the primary results in hand, and Machado’s empowerment, the US will continue to push for her disqualification to be lifted. The question is: How far will they go?”

For Maduro, the easing of US sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports means an influx of much-needed cash before next year’s vote. No longer will he need to offer deep discounts, of as much as $20 per barrel, to get China and other nations willing to defy US sanctions to take the crude off his hands.

A bevy of global oil giants have already signaled they’re ready to return or double down on Venezuela, including Chevron Corp., Italy’s Eni SpA and Brazil’s Petrobras. With the lifting of sanctions, the country could be pumping 200,000 more barrels of crude per day—roughly a quarter jump in production—within six months to a year, according to oil analysts.

With fuel costs again at the center of the US political debate as election season heats up, and more than 22,000 Venezuelans entering the US illegally in August alone, President Joe Biden also has a lot riding on whether Maduro lives up to his end of the bargain.

“This is going to absolutely test the Biden administration’s resolve in seeking a democratic solution in Venezuela and also the red line that they put forward last week with the November deadline,” says Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow. “If the government doesn’t move to lift the bans on opposition participation by then, that issue will really take central stage.”

The Venezuelan government reengaged with the US following a rare visit from high-ranking Biden officials to Caracas in March of last year. In the following months, Maduro agreed to release some American prisoners and signed a deal with the opposition to fund humanitarian assistance for poor Venezuelans. In turn, the US allowed Chevron to expand operations in the country. But talks subsequently stalled until June of this year, when a breakthrough following conversations in Qatar led to the electoral agreement signed last week.

Machado’s win may earn her a seat at the table in ongoing negotiations between the governments in Washington and Caracas that had previously bypassed Venezuela’s opposition. All eyes will be on the newly anointed leader to see whether she can keep the various political forces unified behind her, or if she’ll end up being just the latest in a disappointingly long line of challengers.

 

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