Venezuelan court bans opposition leader from running for president

Venezuela’s highest court ruled Friday that a senior opposition leader cannot run for president, dealing a devastating blow to prospects for credible elections the government had agreed to hold this year in exchange for lifting crippling economic sanctions. USA.

The court’s decision bars opposition figure María Corina Machado from participating in an election for 15 years, upholding the Venezuelan government’s decision to exclude Ms. Machado for what it claimed were financial irregularities that occurred when she was a legislator national.

The move comes after Machado overwhelmingly won an opposition primary election for president that was held in October without official government support and in which more than 2.4 million Venezuelans voted. Analysts say Machado represents the biggest electoral threat to President Nicolás Maduro.

In a publication On social media platform X, Machado said Friday that Maduro and “his criminal system chose the worst path for them: fraudulent elections.” And he added: “What is NOT going to end is our fight to conquer democracy through free and fair elections.”

The Biden administration has tried to convince Venezuela’s authoritarian government to hold elections by relaxing some of the sanctions that have decimated the country’s oil industry, a vital source of revenue.

In October, Maduro’s government reached an agreement with the opposition on steps toward a presidential election, including allowing opponents to choose a candidate to run in elections supposed to be held this year, although an election has not yet been set. date.

The Biden administration indicated that more sanctions could be lifted if the Maduro government allowed candidates who had been disqualified to participate in the elections. And Venezuela agreed to allow candidates who were barred from running for public office to appeal their exclusion to the country’s highest court.

But Maduro’s government has also repeatedly undermined the opposition’s ability to mount a meaningful challenge.

The government has questioned the legitimacy of the opposition primaries and has legally attacked its organizers.

The pressure has increased in recent days. Ms. Machado said that her campaign headquarters had been vandalized and that three of her campaign officials had been arrested.

The United States said on Tuesday that it was “deeply concerned” through arrest warrants and detentions against at least 33 Venezuelans, including members of the opposition, journalists and former military personnel, according to a statement from the United States Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia.

“We call for an end to politically motivated harassment, including attacks on opposition campaign offices and all efforts to stifle the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people through fear and intimidation,” the statement said.

Biden administration officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Venezuelan court’s decision.

Since Maduro took power in 2013, after the death of Hugo Chávez, the founder of the country’s socialist-inspired revolution, a combination of increasing oppression, rampant corruption and sanctions has made life much more difficult for ordinary Venezuelans and currents, and millions have left the country. country.

The United States freed a close ally of Maduro last month in exchange for 10 Americans imprisoned in Venezuela as another step in trying to improve relations.

Venezuela’s economic collapse and political repression have fueled an exodus that has contributed to record numbers of migrants congregating at the United States’ southern border, making migration a major crisis as President Biden seeks re-election in November.

Experts said Friday’s court decision was not a surprise.

“The government was never going to let Machado run; her popularity makes her a huge threat,” said Geoff Ramsey, senior fellow for Venezuela at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research institution.

It also presents a problem for the Biden administration, which “will face strong pressure from Congress to partially or completely reverse the sanctions relief it granted to Maduro,” said Phil Gunson, an International Crisis Group analyst based in Caracas.

“As things stand, the likelihood of a semi-competitive election this year has clearly diminished, but it is essential that the opposition maintains its insistence on the electoral path,” he added.

At the same time, he added, it puts Biden in a bind.

“The problem for Washington is that it has essentially run out of ways to pressure Maduro,” Ramsey said. “How can you threaten a regime that has endured years of crippling sanctions, multiple coup attempts and a failed mercenary invasion?”

The test, several analysts said, will be whether the opposition manages to unite around another candidate.

“This is an opportunity for Venezuela’s famously divided democratic opposition to show its unity,” said Christopher Sabatini, a Latin America researcher at Chatham House, an international affairs research group in London. “Can you support a consensus candidate to ensure that Democrats continue to participate even in corrupt democratic processes?”