Could Venezuela’s softly-spoken opposition newcomer end 25 years of Chavismo?

Estimated read time 6 min read

The road from Caracas to Guatire is lined with propaganda billboards glorifying President Nicolás Maduro and likening his political rivals to gangsters from the country’s most infamous criminal group. “They won’t defeat us,” the slogan declares.

But with less than a month until the economically fractured South American country holds its long-awaited presidential election on 28 July, some people are not persuaded.

“Yes we can! Yes we can!” opposition supporters chanted as they gathered in this city on the eastern outskirts of the capital to champion the duo hoping to end the 11-year rule of Hugo Chávez’s unpopular heir – and more than a quarter-century of Chavismo.

The two politicians in question are María Corina Machado, one of Venezuela’s most prominent and outspoken opposition leaders, and Edmundo González Urrutia, a softly-spoken former diplomat who, until a few months ago, was virtually unknown.

That changed in April when González – a bird-loving granddad who friends describe as a good-natured moderate without any personal political ambitions – agreed to become the opposition’s stand-in presidential candidate. González entered the fray after Machado and her first-choice substitute, an academic called Corina Yoris, were both prevented from challenging Maduro, who is seeking a third six-year term.

Now, with Machado’s support, the septuagenarian political newcomer is leading in the polls as the pair pledge to lead Venezuela out the economic abyss and towards “a peaceful democratic transition”.

“If this were a normal election … then clearly Edmundo González would win by a mile,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst for Crisis Group who is a friend and neighour of the unlikely frontrunner.

The González-Machado campaign has generated a rare wave of optimism among millions of disillusioned citizens after a wretched decade during which the country with the world’s largest oil reserves saw its economy collapse and nearly 8 million people – almost a third of Venezuela’s population – flee abroad.

Man in red baseball cap underneath Venezuelan flagView image in fullscreen

At rallies from the cloud-cloaked Andes to the rainforests of the Amazon, Machado and González have promised to reunite families torn apart by Venezuela’s disintegration and geed up voters with the rallying cry “Vamos a ganar” – “We’re going to win”.

“We believe in them,” said Yulimar Bello, 35, a mother of four who was one of thousands who flocked to the recent assembly at a housing estate in Guatire.

Bello admitted she had never heard of González before he was plucked from obscurity and catapulted on to the front line of one of Latin America’s thorniest political disputes.

But she was certain her teenage daughter would not have to join Venezuela’s historic exodus if the retired diplomat became president. “If they win, my daughter will stay. But if the government wins again – which I doubt – we’ll all have to leave,” Bello said.

The enthusiasm surrounding the opposition campaign against Maduro – who was elected in 2013 after Chávez’s premature death and was controversially returned to office in 2018 – has convinced some Venezuela could be approaching a new political era.

“I think we are facing an unprecedented moment in Venezuelan politics,” said the opposition activist Roberto Patiño. “If the elections were today we would have a significant opportunity for change in Venezuela.”

Not since early 2019 – when more than 50 governments supported an opposition attempt to overthrow Maduro by recognizing a parallel government run by Juan Guaidó – has there been such palpable sense of hope among the president’s foes. “This time we can do it,” insisted Lourdes Lares, 68, a dental hygienist also at the Guatire demo.

Javier Corrales, the author of a book about Venezuela’s democratic breakdown called Autocracy Rising, was bullish about the opposition’s chances of beating the salsa-dancing socialist Maduro. “They seem to be gaining more and more momentum … If we were to have a standard, democratically-run, observable, verifiable election, my guess is that this would produce a change of government very easily.”

But few expect the vote to meet those standards, given Venezuela’s democratic backsliding under Maduro – and few expect Maduro to relinquish power easily. Instead, analysts and opposition activists are bracing for some kind of electoral skulduggery designed to benefit the incumbent.

Gunson said Maduro’s administration has a range of options that stop short of fiddling the vote count.

Firstly, Maduro needs to convince disaffected Chavistas to vote. “Half of the five million-or-so votes he probably needs to win are the votes of people who might just stay at home because they’re not enthusiastic about voting for him,” said Gunson.

Man in pink shirt with Jivi tribe membersView image in fullscreen

At the same time, opposition voters needed deterring, or preventing, from voting, “because if there’s a large turnout – let’s say of the order of 65 or 70% – then the opposition should win”.

One trick intended to reduce turnout appears to have been the insurmountable bureaucratic requirements many overseas voters faced while trying to register. Only about 69,000 Venezuelans have successfully done so out of millions of eligible overseas voters. Meanwhile, activists say 46 people linked to the opposition campaign have been detained this year in order to intimidate Maduro’s rivals, including 18 members of Machado’s party, Vente Venezuela.

Gunson believed Maduro hoped to claim victory in “a reasonably legitimate election” without resorting to blatant fraud: “But, of course, if things are looking bad for him in the sense that he won’t be able to do it even by pulling out all the stops, then he may decide that he has to do something more drastic.”

Speculation is rife about what “something more drastic” might be. Some suspect Maduro might use the supreme court to nix González’s candidacy. Others wonder whether he will manufacture some kind of national security crisis to justify suspending the vote. One possibility might be inflaming the long-running territorial dispute with Guyana over the oil-rich Essequibo region.

“We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Gunson, predicting significant “election engineering” in the coming days. “Clearly the government has to do something to stop [an opposition victory]. The question is: what are they going to do?”

At the rally in Guatire there was defiance from opposition voters, some carrying posters reading “If we vote, Venezuela wins!”

“If the government loses, they’ll have to accept it – and we Venezuelans will have to defend [our victory],” said Jaquelin Córdoba, a 62-year-old homemaker.

Patiño accepted an opposition victory was not a done deal. “Maduro could still disqualify Edmundo from the ballot. They could do drastic, crazy stuff.”

“But even with all that chicanery, I think it’s not going to be enough for them,” Patiño added, urging the electorate to reject what he called the false narrative that authoritarian leaders such as Maduro could never be removed.

Patiño recalled how in 1958 the Venezuelan dictator, Marcos Pérez Jiménez, lost power just weeks after calling a referendum supposed to prolong his reign.

“This is what happened in Chile with Pinochet [in 1988]. This is what happened in Nicaragua with Chamorro and Ortega [in 1990],” Patiño said. “Even the Soviet Union collapsed, right?”


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