María Corina Won The Primaries. What Comes Now?

María Corina Machado presented a four-parts plan to build up the way to Miraflores. But as the November 30th deadline approaches, she is still banned from running for office

With a giant seven stars flag as her background, María Corina Machado gave her first press conference after winning the primaries. In it, repeating what she had mentioned in her victory speech, she invited civil society organizations, business and commercial associations and political parties to participate in the “creation of governability” before the 2024 elections: “We must build the house we are going to move into”, she said. Then, Machado proceeded to highlight her four-parts plan. 

First, Machado mentioned a “great national agreement” based on the common values of the different sectors. Second, the “development of an electoral apparatus” to ensure electoral integrity. Third, to approach all foreign actors to align visions and interests of both governments “close to the democratic struggle” and also governments “close to the regime” that today understand the need for “an orderly and sustained transition.” She then said she has already approached these heads of state. Finally, Machado stressed the importance of negotiations so that electoral agreements “are strictly and precisely fulfilled within the established deadlines.” 

Her electoral plan, built upon a diverse coalition, represented a drift from her previous rhetoric. There was no mention of humanitarian military interventions or attacks on other sectors of the opposition. Now, it seems, ideas like “the route of courage”, R2P and phrases like “displacing that opposition” have been barred from her rhetoric. Machado spoke in plural terms, especially when referring to a future presidential victory, and invited the other sectors of the opposition to join her in this new strategy. 

María Corina, in a yellow-toned dress, with María Beatriz Martínez and Paola Bautista de Alemán -Primero Justicia’s president and one of its vice presidents, respectively- in the party’s women’s forum in late November.

Since then, she has kept and sustained the tone. She has praised Gerardo Blyde, chief negotiator of the opposition, and tacitly supported the Barbados electoral agreement – which ensures electoral conditions in exchange for sanctions relief. In fact, soon after the regime judicialized the primaries’ results, she said the agreement hasn’t been broken yet: “The primaries are not voidable. The Tribunal can say whatever it wants, but the fact is there, it is irreversible,” Machado said, “so I don’t think this implies that the [Barbados] agreement has been violated, not yet. The regime is pushing the limits but it has not yet been broken.”

Machado has now reached out to most opposition leaders and parties. In a recent Maracaibo rally to support her, the G4 parties that once ruled the opposition published posters with her image and their logos: the same parties whose leadership Machado, a few months before, had described as “the defeated” that needed to be “displaced” if the opposition wanted to oust the regime. Now, with her overwhelming victory, the “defeated” are rallying behind her – and her newfound plural, big tent, pro-negotiations, moderated rhetoric. Machado has an acute political sense of smell and, quite cleverly, has managed to sustain her new leadership without imploding an already fragile alliance. She is no longer the radical fringe semi-outsider. She is the head of the opposition. 

Her leadership, beyond her strategic ceasefire with the rest of the opposition and the main parties of the Unitary Platform, is also the result of the leverage the opposition primaries gave her – where more than 2.3 million people in Venezuela participate, surprising absolutely everybody. The primaries have also resulted in new leverage for the mainstream opposition, which is now revitalized and consolidating again in one pole. Fuerza Vecinal, a “loyal opposition” party, imploded after trying to sabotage the primaries: losing, in the stroke of a pen, eight mayors –including one in east Caracas– and around 60 regional leaders including regional lawmakers and councilors. In fact, for the first time in years, Venezuelans who identify as ‘opposition’ are now the biggest self-identification block –back to 2019 levels– according to polls by Delphos. Machado, the country’s new political superstar, now needs the missing –but most important– key: a lift on her ban from running for the office. 

Banners from the G4 parties showing María Corina Machado as their candidate.

Machado has recently rejected the idea of a substitute candidate if her ban is not lifted – discarding, for now at least, the strategy a vetoed Juan Perón resorted to when he supported Héctor José Cámpora in the 1973 Argentine elections or a banned Aung San Suu Kyi when she supported Htin Kyaw as her substitute once the Myanmar transition began in 2015. Machado, on the contrary, seems to expect international pressure and negotiations will allow her to legally run as the opposition’s candidate. If she has a plan B, it’s –cleverly– not public yet. 

But, regardless of Machado’s marketing strategy and her internal efforts, it’s important to remember that there’s quite a massive power imbalance between the opposition and Maduro’s government. PSUV controls all state institutions which, of course, includes the National Electoral Council and the courts that would decide any electoral disputes. To negotiate from a position of weakness is to negotiate from the grave, especially when the other party only cares about maintaining its power – which is why Machado and the opposition need some help leveling the field. That’s where the United States comes in.

Now, with her overwhelming victory, the “defeated” are rallying behind her – and her newfound plural, big tent, pro-negotiations, moderated rhetoric. Machado has an acute political sense of smell and, quite cleverly, has managed to sustain her new leadership without imploding an already fragile alliance. She is no longer the radical fringe semi-outsider. She is the head of the opposition. 

The Maduro government stays in power through each crisis because they have created a deep-seated and complex kleptocracy. Excess cash to give away is key to the regime’s survival, which is why the institutional sanctions applied by the United States and the European Union have been such a thorn in their side. With government finances becoming strained in recent years, the regime has sought some relief from the sanctions, finally securing some breathing room on October 18th when the US temporarily lifted sectoral sanctions on oil, gas, gold, bank transactions and secondary bond trading after the Maduro government signed the agreement with the opposition in Barbados. 

The US didn’t give this away for free, however. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, made it clear in a statement on October 18th that the stick was following the carrot rather closely, and Venezuela had to fulfill a few conditions in order to keep chomping on the carrot. Among these conditions were the release of all political prisoners and wrongly detained US nationals, as well as a timeline and mechanism to expedite the lifting of political bans on opposition candidates by the end of November. This is why this month is so critical to Venezuela’s immediate political future. The US has the political and financial tools to twist Maduro’s arm and get him closer to a real negotiation with the opposition, but their words need to be credible if they want Maduro to comply. The Chavista government has already slowly been eroding the Barbados agreement by going after the opposition primary results and harassing key organizers. This seems to be testing America’s resolve, poking to see how far they can go before the US acts on its words. 

Washington has already reacted to these pokes, but they’ve done so with mere words, which may lead Maduro to believe he can keep pushing. We’re now only a few days away from the end of November and, instead of acting to release political prisoners, Maduro’s regime has added another one. It’s hard to see how they’ll attempt to pass this off but we shouldn’t be surprised if they claim the original release of five prisoners on October 18th is a “satisfactory first step”. 

Regarding the lifting of political bans, it’s important to remember that the United States only demanded that a plan be presented before the end of the month, not that the bans actually be lifted at that time. Maduro still has a few days to come up with something that’ll fulfill this criteria, which shouldn’t be that difficult. The wording, of course, will be a delicate subject. If the government does follow through on this, we’re unlikely to get a document stating that all bans will be lifted, instead, we should look out for something which claims political bans will be “reviewed” in December or January. This would give Maduro some wiggle room: on the one hand he’ll be able to claim he complied with the request, on the other, the language would be vague enough to allow him to lift some bans later down the line, but not all of them – let alone María Corina’s. 

The United States’ commitment to the Venezuelan opposition is critical here: if they don’t live up to their promises, it’ll expose the opposition as being more alone than we think – and they’ll be giving Maduro more confidence to keep pressing.