Blacklisted and muzzled: Maduro’s biggest rival cannot be stopped


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Despite Nicolas Maduro‘s best efforts, Maria Corina Machado is everywhere.

The Venezuelan opposition leader, who will not appear on the presidential ballot later this month, has prompted the ruling party to stop the fervor behind her. She has united a long-divided opposition coalition that once shut her out. But above all, she has built a powerful, energetic grassroots movement that, some longtime observers say, is unlike anything seen here since the late Hugo Chávez — President Maduro’s mentor and idol — emerged from obscurity to take on the political establishment in the 1990s.

“She’s coming! She’s coming! Maria is coming!”

People shout the message from block to block as her caravan slowly makes its way down a mountain toward the center of San Cristóbal, in the same border state that was the cradle of anti-government protests in 2014. People can be seen cheering and crying on both sides. The crowd is even larger than it appears, with many watching via video call as family members in the swarming crowd call in to catch a glimpse of Machado. There are no bodyguards to protect her, so the crowd freely passes her letters, flowers, rosaries, food, paintings and religious figures. Some reach out to simply touch her.

“This is prophetic,” said Rubén Yuncoza from the crowd. “She is anointed by God.”

It’s no wonder that Machado has become a messianic figure for Venezuelans desperate for change. They’ve watched their country fall apart under a political movement that promised social justice and equality but led to the largest humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly 80 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty, and millions have fled in search of opportunity elsewhere. It’s a similar story in Yuncoza’s family. At 60, he’s of retirement age, but like many older Venezuelans, he still works — selling fish — to make ends meet. Meanwhile, his five working-age children moved abroad during the worst of the country’s crisis.

It’s hard to imagine where Machado’s move will lead. She is banned from holding public office until 2030, and Maduro is unlikely to step aside. Venezuela’s government expects protests if Maduro is declared the winner, and in recent months Machado has consistently said she will “make the votes count” when elections come, hinting at potential rigging.

Machado is now campaigning on behalf of her stand-in candidate, the 74-year-old former diplomat Edmundo González. Her popularity has eclipsed that of Juan Guaidó, the lawmaker who was recognized by the U.S. and dozens of countries as the country’s interim president in 2019 after Maduro’s illegitimate re-election in 2018. In some places, such as San Cristóbal, she has brought out more people than Henrique Capriles, the two-time presidential candidate who narrowly lost to Maduro in 2013.

Machado’s rise is a product of her uniqueness among established politicians and timing. Fed-up voters look for the opposite of Maduro, and that’s her. She’s a woman. She comes from a wealthy family but can still connect with the country’s most vulnerable. She believes in dismantling government oversight of the economy and privatizing the oil industry. And she’s been consistent in her message over the years: She’s often remembered for interrupting one of Chávez’s speeches in 2012 to criticize the damage he’s done to Venezuela’s economy, and for leading street protests against Maduro in 2014.

It all coincided with a significant change in Venezuelan attitudes, said Benigno Alarcón, director of the political studies center at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. People are starting to believe they can make a change without depending on any person or institution, and have grown tired of poor government benefits. They prefer to earn their own money.

“Almost 85% of the country wants change and finds in Machado the person who embodies this because of the very clear contrasts,” he said. “She has contributed to empowering people.”

Machado, the 56-year-old former lawmaker, believes it is a two-way dynamic. “We reinforce each other,” she said from her party’s dilapidated San Cristóbal headquarters, whose ceiling was damaged by water.

Ultimately, it’s up to Maduro how far Machado—and her supporters—will go. The government has tried to curb her influence. She says she can’t appear on TV or radio. Power outages often interrupt her scheduled performances. The venues she visits are fined or shut down. Those who help her are prosecuted or even jailed. During the San Cristóbal rally on June 28, locals say, the government went so far as to drill gaping holes in nearby roads to prevent people from reaching the city, warn taxi drivers not to pick up journalists or Machado’s aides, and force merchants to keep their businesses open to prevent workers from attending her rally. Instead, workers were pressed against store windows to see her. The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

“It speaks of a delayed hunger for life that Venezuelans have,” said María Teresa Urriztieta, a doctor of social psychology and expert in social movements. “It speaks of every life project that has come to a standstill, broken families and gaping wounds that we now share in collective mourning.”

Nine months after winning the opposition primary in October with more than 92% of the vote, Maduro’s government ratified Machado’s ban on running for office. At least 13 of her associates and allies have been arrested since January, and six others remain refugees in the Argentine embassy in Caracas.

Rather, attempts to suppress her have served to fuel passions for the “Iron Woman” – an apparent reference to Margaret Thatcher – as many now call her.

José Alberto Aguilar, a 45-year-old trader, and his family had to overcome several roadblocks on the 60-mile road from the town of Seboruco to the San Cristóbal rally. He just wanted to see Machado and, if he was lucky, get close enough to give her his 1-year-old daughter, Ana Paula, dressed in a onesie that read “baby with María Corina.”

It’s something you often see at Machado’s events.

“When people give me their babies, sometimes even newborn babies, it breaks my soul,” Machado said. “There is no greater sign of trust in a person than when you put your child in their arms.”

Even adults have thrown themselves into her arms, sobbing.

Still, it is difficult to imagine a world in which Maduro would relinquish power.

Despite trailing González by 20 percentage points, Maduro still believes he can win, insiders said.

If he were wrong, Maduro has an alternative plan: he could disqualify González, invalidate the opposition’s ballot, suspend the election or even change the outcome of the election, according to the population.

Watch: Inside Venezuela

Machado’s future is also at stake. It is likely that, regardless of the outcome, she will eventually be exiled from Venezuela or jailed. Guaidó is now living in exile in Miami.

If a new wave of national protests erupts over a Maduro victory, it could pose a serious threat to his government, which killed more than 100 people in anti-government protests in 2017. It could also undo the country’s nascent recovery, including newly signed projects by the state oil company and ramped-up oil production by international oil giants including U.S. driller Chevron, which account for more than 95% of Venezuela’s foreign earnings.

Another exodus is also expected if Maduro secures a third term. A May poll showed that 41% of the country’s estimated 28.8 million remaining citizens are considering leaving.

“We are going to defend our voices,” said Daneska Ramírez, a 45-year-old hairstylist who recently moved back home after five years between Peru and Chile. “I don’t want to migrate again, I have a family that I love and I will fight.”

–With assistance from Fabiola Zerpa.

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