María Corina Machado, on September 6.LEONARDO FERNANDEZ VILORIA (REUTERS)
The primary process of the Venezuelan opposition reactivated the spring of electoral participation and a hope for peaceful change. Of the many challenges that arise in taking advantage of this moment, it is essential to carefully calibrate whether it is possible to promote an orderly transition. Not only the fate of Maria Corina Machado, the country’s most recent political phenomenon, but also that of the opposition and a sector of Chavismo could depend on this.
September has been a month of intense movement of different factors that seek some understanding between Venezuelan decision makers and pressure groups. In international circles there is a lot of talk about the opposition’s fatigue, but little is taken into account that Chavismo is perhaps equally exhausted.
The primaries, although they are advancing, are as overwhelmingly fragile as a person with glass bones. Machado’s growth made her a hot potato for the opposition and the ruling party. Some perceive that her progress, with a leader-people strategy, reduces the space for eventual negotiation.
There are those who believe that Machado’s popularity is like an alka seltzer and will happen the same as what happened with Juan Guaidó, who in 2019 emerged as the leader of an “interim government” and like many others ended up in exile. I have the impression that Machado’s rise is the expression of a great need for change and a generalized discontent that is reflected throughout Venezuelan society, including the bases of Chavismo.
Last August, a survey by the Delphos firm placed María Corina Machado with 74% voting intention for the opposition primaries. She takes village baths in every mass event she does. In a recent one, in eastern Venezuela, she looked like Shakira at the MTV Awards, surfing in the arms of the attendees who lifted her, like a goddess, until they put her on a platform where she would give a speech.
Opinion polls also show that the Government is not only unpopular but that a generic opposition candidate reaches a voting intention of over 55 percent in the event of a national election. When it comes to names, Machado heads all queries.
Being ineffective in public management while resorting to human rights violations to remain in power also has an downstream cost. Unlike Hugo Chávez, who in political terms was an aircraft carrier, Maduro is like a submarine with ballast. Until now, the Chavista leadership has conveyed the idea that he is willing to stay below his waterline. But that leadership knows that at this moment it is impossible to win an election with him as a candidate.
The followers of Chavismo have been affected by the humanitarian emergency, the economic crisis, migrations and disenchantment with the group that leads it. Furthermore, like the rest, most of them hold the government responsible for the country’s crisis.
The Maduro Government has made the usual moves to remove the opposition from the electoral route: disqualification, change of the National Electoral Council, intimidation, co-optation, intimidation. By not achieving this, he has taken another step. The new CNE agreed to provide a “comprehensive, constitutional and legal technical service” for the primaries. Last June, the National Primary Commission, the governing body of the opposition consultation, made this request to the previous CNE. When the rectors were removed, the CNP decided to continue with a self-managed process. Although the current offer seems more like a threat, in a few hours the leadership of the opposition body met with the new electoral directors and agreed to create a mixed commission.
Everything happens with less than a month left until the primary is held and with three of the candidates disqualified, including Machado.
With this recent move, the Government seems to want the opposition leadership to be in charge of dethroning the leader. In this way, you bet on killing two birds with the same stone. If the opponents activate the guillotine to behead Machado, they run the great risk of throwing away the opportunity for change through electoral means.
In Venezuela we have coined the metaphor of a film titled Groundhog Day as a summary of all the frustrated attempts there have been to achieve change. This time, with all the opposition headed down the electoral route, there may be a new opportunity to modify the ending of this film.
Outside the limelight, partial agreements are sought in which the role of the United States is essential. Efforts are focused on Chavismo accepting an electoral agenda with a view to 2024; while on the side of the Maduro Government they are working, still unsuccessfully, to lift sanctions.
Recently, Francisco Palmieri, head of mission of the US Foreign Office for Venezuela, reiterated at an Atlantic Council event in Washington DC the conditions for relaxing sanctions. He mainly insists on the release of political prisoners, an end to disqualifications and a credible electoral process in 2024.
For Geoff Ramsey, specialist for the Adrienne Arsht Center for Latin America, Palmieri has given signs that although the negotiation window is open, the opportunity is not indefinite. Ramsey believes that the ball is in the Maduro Government’s court and believes that, if they do not act in time, they will lose this opportunity because the United States will become immersed in its own electoral agenda.
I think the key is an approach made by Tamara Taraciuk, director of the Peter Bell Rule Program on the Rule of Law of the Inter-American Dialogue. She wonders how to provide a golden bridge for people in power to allow a transition to happen.
Any real change must go through those in power, but what to do if the logic is not to give it up. It is in that space where perhaps it is worth the effort to continue exploring ideas that help a peaceful solution. How long will the Chavista elite remain willing to remain on their own hamster wheel?
Everyone has an opportunity to do it differently and the best example continues to be given by Venezuelan society, which, in all opinion studies, reiterates its commitment to the electoral process. The leadership can change the ending of this movie that is repeated over and over again.
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