Quantfury Gazette

Venezuela is full of intrigue as looming election pits Maduro against a refreshed opposition

Nathan Crooks
Quantfury Team

It would be rational to shrug off growing intrigue about the presidential election scheduled to take place on July 28 in Venezuela, with the authoritarian regime headed by Nicolas Maduro firmly entrenched despite the social and economic collapse that has characterized the socialist revolution first started by the former Hugo Chavez 25 years ago. The last election in 2018 was widely viewed as a sham, afterall, and it’s easy to assume that this next one could go the same way for a myriad of realpolitik reasons. As the election day approaches, however, a growing number of voices are starting to whisper—ever so slightly—that something feels different.

The buildup to this latest showdown has of course unfolded in classic Venezuelan over-the-topness and absurdity. Advancing the charge against the government is Maria Corina Machado, the electric leader of a movement for change. A long-running firebrand of the political opposition through its multiple iterations and failed attempts to grab back the country, she’s opposed Chavez from the very beginning and has now played what many say is a perfect game against Maduro, skillfully using every roadblock thrown her way as a chance to double down and outmaneuver him. When the regime arbitrarily blocked her from running after a decisive primary victory, she appointed a standin. When that candidate was subsequently barred, she settled on another one. While her name is no longer on the ballot, everyone knows it’s her campaign.

Opposition sources note new polls that give their standin candidate—Edmundo González Urrutia—a double-digit lead. They say Maduro would lose in a landslide if free and fair elections are held, even though there are many reasons to expect he’ll do whatever it takes to stay in power amid an ongoing investigation at the International Criminal Court and sanctions abroad. The ruling socialist party is also known for strong ground operations that can get its voters to the polls while suppressing turnout on the other side. But analysts close to the political opposition point to several factors they say make this election unique. They say a rare window for change could be opening.

To start, Maduro is confronting a rival that he’s never had to deal with before: the very powerful Venezuelan archetype of the strong and loving matriarch. After being prohibited from traveling by plane, Machado, 56, has been convoying around the vast country—through its mountains, plains and jungles—taking her message of hope to hinterlands far flung from her native Caracas, the capital. The images have been nothing short of cinematic. In one video, Machado is dressed in a simple white shirt and blue jeans, adorned with numerous rosaries. She rides on the roof of a car, surrounded by motorcyclists twisting and turning through the fog in the foothills of the Andes.

“I want my father to return,” a young boy tells her as she touches his cheek through the open window of her vehicle and clutches his hand. He kisses her. “Maria Corina, please,” a nearby girl yells. Machado shared the video in a post on social media. “10:00 at night, under the rain, in Merida,” she wrote. “Never again. We will bring him back, son.” She was referencing the nearly eight million Venezuelans who have departed the country over the past decade because of the manmade economic collapse that’s brought hyperinflation and poverty. It’s the largest refugee and displacement crisis in the world, surpassing the scale of exoduses from Syria and Ukraine. And Venezuela’s not technically at war.

Weeks earlier, in the steamy jungle city of Tucupita in the Orinoco Delta, Machado walked over the roofs of multiple cars to get to a stage, grabbing every hand that reached out to touch her as security guards had to hoist her up from the crowd. It’s a never-before-seen contrast in Venezuela to the macho figures portrayed by both Chavez and Maduro, with their military fatigues and jumpsuits. While Maduro speaks from rooftops as snipers point their guns at those compelled to attend his rallies, Machado has perfected a simple, yet visually distinctive look that projects humility and grace.

In elections past, a frequent criticism of the opposition—and its leaders—was that it didn’t resonate with people outside of prosperous areas of the capital who had been a stable bastion of support for Chavez and the successor regime. The opposition was economically well-off, protected and out of touch, critics alleged. This election cycle, that wealthy middle class has mostly departed the country. It’s been the poor and elderly who have remained and suffered through the worst years of the crisis, and they’re turning out en masse for Machado. The new Venezuelan opposition has evolved.

“The social dynamics have changed,” one analyst in Caracas said. Machado is speaking to a much broader audience.

Beyond Machado’s momentum, opposition voices note that key allies including Iran, Russia and Cuba are all facing their own challenges and may lack the will they previously had to support the country. Even if not a necessity to maintain hard power anymore, the appearance of having free elections is important for Maduro’s claim to legitimacy, especially among leftist governments in Latin America. That means that Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Colombian President Gustavo Petro, Chilean President Gabriel Boric and Mexican President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum could all emerge as powerful voices in the days to come. Though they may ideologically favor Maduro, Latin America’s complicated political history makes it hard to support an open dictatorship, especially as the region continues to suffer consequences from the vast flow of migrants fleeing Venezuela. Opposition analysts say another one million people could depart the country if Maduro maintains his grip on power.

Any political transition that involves the peaceful departure of an entrenched regime would of course be complicated, and it’s far too early to count Maduro out. There is, however, a precedent for voters unexpectedly overturning a brutal South American dictatorship: Chile in 1988, when Gen. Agosto Pinochet faced international pressure to legitimize his regime with a plebiscite he would ultimately lose despite widespread speculation that he’d be able to fix the vote somehow. As depicted in the movie “No,” the political opposition at that time was able to navigate the high stakes race with a simple marketing campaign that took the country by storm and presented Chileans with a vision for an alternate future. Using the slogan that “happiness is on the way,” the narrative changed and snowballed into a force that even Pinochet couldn’t control.

Something similar may now be underway in Venezuela, but just how far it goes remains an open question. Both the government and the opposition are in uncharted territory.


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