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Venezuela Calls for Election in Which President Wouldn’t Face Viable Candidate – WSJ

Announcement caps weeks of increased repression as Maduro regime calls Biden administration’s bluff that U.S. would reimpose sanctions. Venezuelan principal opposition leader Maria Corina Machado has in effect a court ruling that prevents her from holding office.

Kejal Vyas, WSJ

EnergiesNet.com 03 06 2024

Venezuela will hold presidential elections July 28, authorities said Tuesday, setting the stage for an election in which authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro is likely to run without any credible challenger and raising the possibility that the Biden administration would reimpose sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry.

Maduro is expected to try to seek a third six-year term by facing a candidate he can easily beat even as opinion polls show that some 80% of the population wants change.

Venezuelan officials have repeatedly said they are maintaining a ruling that bans his top opponent, María Corina Machado, from running. Other candidates who polled well against Maduro, some of whom live in exile, have long since been prohibited from holding office.

“A free and fair election is just something Maduro can’t afford to risk,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, a think tank that researches troubled countries. “He’s not going to go into an election that he can’t be certain of winning.”

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro Photo: Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Reuters
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro Photo: Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Reuters

Venezuela’s announcement comes on the 11th anniversary of the death of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, a radical firebrand who put Venezuela on a socialist path. The election was scheduled for Chávez’s birthday.

Machado didn’t immediately comment about the announcement from the National Electoral Council, which is controlled by the government. But Machado, a longtime opponent of the regime, pledged earlier Tuesday to keep campaigning.

“We will defeat them spiritually,” she tweeted on X. “They are afraid because they know that we would sweep in an election.”

The opposition will have about three weeks to decide if it sticks with Machado or tries to register another candidate against Maduro.

That could cause the opposition to split, analysts say, as Machado and her supporters say she has no plans to step aside.

The earlier-than-expected election date also leaves a short preparation window for international observers, whose presence the U.S. wants after past allegations that Maduro’s government engaged in widespread voter fraud.

María Corina Machado, President Maduro’s top opponent, has been banned by his regime from holding office. Photo: Pedro Rances Mattey/Zuma Press
María Corina Machado, President Maduro’s top opponent, has been banned by his regime from holding office. Photo: Pedro Rances Mattey/Zuma Press

The announcement comes as the Maduro regime backpedals on an agreement it reached with the U.S. and the political opposition in October that called for democratic concessions in exchange for Washington lifting sanctions against Venezuela’s oil industry. The regime’s latest measures could force the Biden administration to reimpose oil sanctions when they are up for renewal in April, said Gunson.

“Otherwise Washington loses a lot of credibility having said there would be no extension of the license if Maduro didn’t fulfill the terms,” he said.

The U.S. State Department and National Security Council didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Senior Biden administration advisers have publicly said that relaxing punitive measures on Venezuela could help stabilize the country and slow the outflow of migrants fleeing hyperinflation, food shortages, crime and repression. Nearly eight million have fled during Maduro’s 11 years in power.

Ronal Rodríguez, a scholar at the Venezuela Observatory of Rosario University in Bogotá, Colombia, said he expected increased repression and economic problems in Venezuela will mean more emigration this year. A poll in December by Consultores 21, a Venezuelan polling firm, found that one in three Venezuelans wanted to leave, with the U.S. being their preferred destination.

Though the winter months often see a drop in migration, Rodríguez noted that this January saw high numbers of Venezuelans moving through the jungle corridor separating South and Central America en route to the U.S. Nearly 22,000 of the migrants crossing through those rainforest footpaths in January were Venezuelan, Panamanian migration data shows, up from 2,337 in the same month last year.

Some Venezuelan regime leaders have made it little secret that migration has become an important negotiation piece in their talks with the U.S.

“We know that that agreement gives relief to the U.S. because it’s the one of the biggest problems that they have over there, that of the migrants,” Diosdado Cabello, a close Maduro ally, said during a televised address recently. “Under no circumstances will we ever capitulate.”

In the wake of the October agreement, which came after a year of secret negotiations between U.S. and Venezuelan officials, the Biden administration lifted sanctions on various economic sectors.

The regime, meanwhile, arrested dozens of activists and ordered a United Nations human rights unit to leave the country. Venezuela also followed through on a threat to stop accepting flights of migrants deported from the U.S., a blow to Biden’s efforts to reduce migration flows.

Ryan Dubé and Juan Forero contributed to this article.

Write to Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com

wsj.com 03 05 2024

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