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Maria Corina Machado is out to defeat Venezuela’s Maduro. He’s trying to block her.

CARACAS, Venezuela — María Corina Machado had already been barred from leaving Venezuela for a decade and blacklisted by most of the nation’s major television stations. Then, after she emerged as the clear front-runner in this fall’s primary election to choose a candidate to run against President Nicolás Maduro, his government banned her from participating.

But Machado, a 55-year-old former lawmaker once mocked by the late President Hugo Chávez, has no plans to step aside. In an interview with The Washington Post, she described the disqualification as “irrelevant” since the government is not responsible for the primary. And if she wins the primary, she said, she will not concede to a candidate “that suits the regime.”

Instead, she said, she will aim to build so much support among Venezuelans that Maduro is forced to let her enter the presidential race.

“We will fight, and we will create force,” she said. “The candidate is chosen by the people, not by Maduro.”

More than a decade after he ascended to power, Maduro has survived mass protests, a crumbling economy, crippling sanctions, the exodus of nearly a quarter of his population, and a failed U.S.-backed “interim government” aiming to oust him. In recent years, he has managed to cement his grip on power, gaining legitimacy and recognition from foreign governments even as he faces a probe by the International Criminal Court into alleged crimes against humanity. The Biden administration has shown a willingness to deal with him and granted Chevron a license to resume pumping oil in Venezuela — while trying to push Maduro toward free and fair elections.

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The last time a presidential election took place in Venezuela, in 2018, the major opposition parties boycotted a vote that they anticipated would be fraudulent. After a years-long boycott strategy failed to bring change, opposition leaders plan to hold a presidential primary in October in the hopes of unifying behind one candidate to run against Maduro in 2024.

So far, Maduro shows no sign of even trying to make the election look free and fair. Of the 14 candidates running in the October primary, at least three have been disqualified by his government so far, including two leading politicians, Machado and opposition leader Henrique Capriles. Maduro has dismantled the national electoral council and failed to carry out recommendations from a 2021 European Union monitoring mission. The pro-Maduro president of the National Assembly last week said that an E.U. observation mission should not be allowed to enter the country. A lawsuit seeking to block the primary is also advancing to the Maduro-aligned Supreme Court.

Whether it’s because he feels threatened or emboldened, Maduro appears to be taking the country down the path of Nicaraguan authoritian leader Daniel Ortega, who claimed in 2021 that he’d won another five-year term — after jailing dozens of opponents — in an election dismissed by many world leaders as a sham.

With polls showing Maduro and his party foundering among voters, his government fears what could happen in legitimate elections, said David Smilde, a Venezuela analyst and professor at Tulane University. While Maduro and his allies do not want to suffer the political isolation of Nicaragua, Smilde said, they also know they could be jailed or forced into exile if pushed out of office.

“I think the whole idea of an electoral solution to this is not looking good,” Smilde said. “What the government has done since 2017 is drive a wedge in the opposition. … They want to avoid a unanimous boycott or a unanimous participation, and they do that with these obnoxious measures that make sure the election is not fair.”

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Andrés Izarra, who served as communications minister under Chávez and is now a Maduro critic, said the authoritarian leader has no chance of winning in a competitive election.

The government, he said, “is not going to leave power to go to jail. They are not going to leave Miraflores [Palace] to go to a dungeon. And they have the power to stop it from happening.”

Machado’s disqualification has drawn fierce criticism from foreign governments. The European Parliament described the decision as “arbitrary and unconstitutional.” Even Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who has recently fostered warmer diplomatic relations with Maduro, said “no administrative authority should take away political rights from any citizen.”

Francisco Palmieri, the U.S. chief of mission of the Venezuelan Affairs Unit based in Bogotá, also condemned the recent moves. He said the United States is “still assessing the direction that the Maduro regime is heading.”

“There’s obviously a number of practical steps the regime can take to demonstrate it wants to move toward the path of a free and fair election,” he said. “Disqualifying candidates is counter to that path. Rejecting the presence of international observers, particularly from the European Union, does not take us down that path.”

To Venezuelan opposition candidates, the disqualifications came as no surprise. Maduro previously barred two-time presidential candidate Capriles, in 2017, and former self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó in 2021.

Machado’s ban was made public in late June, when congressman José Brito, a former opposition ally, consulted the comptroller general about her status. He confirmed she was barred from public office for 15 years, which Machado described as unconstitutional. The reason given by the Comptroller’s Office was her support of a U.S.-backed interim government and sanctions by the United States on Maduro. The decision apparently extends a 12-month ban from 2015, when she was accused of administrative wrongdoing from her time in parliament, which she denied.

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Machado is an industrial engineer and daughter of a prominent steel businessman whose company was expropriated by Chávez. A staunch conservative, she rose to national recognition as a fierce critic of Chávez. She once famously challenged him during his annual address to the assembly in 2012, telling him “expropriating is robbing.” Chávez responded dismissively: “Águila no caza mosca” — “the eagle doesn’t hunt the fly.”

With views that veer further right than many in the opposition — she has vowed, for instance, to completely privatize the oil industry — Machado has expressed frustration with the movement’s focus on negotiating with Maduro. She has, in turn, been criticized for her tougher approach.

At a debate earlier this month, when opposition candidates held hands and raised them together in a sign of unity, Machado was the only one who refused.

In a meeting on Monday with opposition leaders, Machado and others discussed what would happen if she were to win the primary without the ability to run against Maduro: Should they back a different candidate?

There was no consensus, Machado said. But she has repeatedly insisted that if she wins, she’ll “fight until the end.” Since the primary will not be carried out by the government, she said she can participate despite its ban.

“First I need to build strength,” she said. “The disqualification will just be another formality. If we drown in the disqualification today, we’ve already lost.”

Luis Vicente León, director of the Caracas-based Datanalisis polling agency, said Machado is operating under the assumption that the Venezuelan people will pour out to defend her, “like a Venezuelan Joan of Arc.”

“The problem is she doesn’t necessarily have the strength to move the people,” he said. Polls show that the majority of Venezuelans are completely disconnected from politics.

If Machado is intent on making this a fight until the end, “the probability of that being successful is very low,” León said.

But Izarra, the former Chavez communications minister, said Machado’s popularity is a response to a widespread desire for new leadership.

“People are tired,” he said. “The people are looking for a candidate to represent them to get out of the tragedy that Madurismo represents.”

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