Venezuela’s highest court upholds ban on opposition presidential candidate

CARACAS: The prospect of a free presidential election in Venezuela was dealt a heavy blow Friday when the country’s highest court upheld a ban on the candidacy of Maria Corina Machado, a longtime government foe and winner of the primary held by the opposition faction backed by the United States.
The ruling ran afoul an agreement last year between President Nicolas Maduro and the US-backed opposition aimed at leveling the playing field ahead of the election later this year.The deal led Washington to ease economic sanctions on Maduro’s government.
Machado, a former lawmaker, won the opposition’s independently run presidential primary in October with more than 90% of the votes. Her victory came despite the government publicizing a 15-year ban on her running for office just days after she formally entered the race in June.
She was able to participate in the primary election because the effort was organized by a commission independent of Venezuela’s electoral authorities. She insisted throughout the campaign that she never received an official notification of the ban, and said that voters, not ruling-party loyalists, are the rightful decision-makers of her candidacy.
After the court issued its ruling, Machado tweeted that her campaign’s “fight to conquer democracy through free and fair elections” is not over.
“Maduro and his criminal system chose the worst path for them: fraudulent elections,” she wrote. “That’s not gonna happen.”
She did not offer any details of her next steps, and her campaign declined to comment.
Machado in December filed a claim with Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice that argued the ban was null and void and sought an injunction to protect her political rights.
Instead, the court upheld the ban, which alleges fraud and tax violations and accuses her of seeking the economic sanctions the U.S. imposed on Venezuela last decade.
The U.S. eased some of the sanctions on Venezuela’s oil, gas and mining industrie s in October after Maduro’s government and the opposition group known as the Unitary Platform signed the agreement addressing electoral conditions. The accord also led to a swap of prisoners between Washington and Caracas in December.
The deal signed on the Caribbean island of Barbados narrowed the scheduling of the presidential election to the second half of 2024 and called on both sides to “promote the authorization of all presidential candidates and political parties” to participate as long as they comply with the law. The latter provision prompted the government to allow candidates to appeal their bans.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has threatened to reverse some of the sanctions relief if Maduro’s government fails to lift bans preventing Machado and others from running for office, and if it fails to release political prisoners.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately comment on the court’s action.
Geoff Ramsey, senior analyst on Venezuela at the Atlantic Council think tank, said Maduro’s government was never going to let Machado be a presidential candidate because “her popularity makes her too much of a threat.”
“The timing of this will make it almost impossible for the U.S. government to ignore,” he said. “The problem for Washington is that it’s essentially run out of ways to pressure Maduro. How do you threaten a regime that’s already endured multiple coup attempts and years of crippling sanctions?”
The U.S.-backed opposition stunned its allies and adversaries when more than 2.4 million people voted in the primary, including in neighborhoods long considered strongholds of the governing party. The high turnout came amid Venezuela’s continuing economic struggles and despite government efforts to discredit and discourage participation.
Maduro and his allies deemed the opposition’s primary fraudulent. Attorney General Tarek William Saab opened criminal investigations against some of the organizers and later issued arrest warrants for some of Machado’s collaborators.
Over the past two weeks, Maduro, Saab and Jorge Rodriguez, the leader of the National Assembly and the government’s chief negotiator, have linked opposition supporters and people close to Machado to a number of alleged conspiracies they claim were devised to assassinate the president and his inner circle.
Rodriguez, without mentioning Machado, on Friday tweeted that “despite the serious threats from far-right sectors against the peace of the Republic,” referring to the alleged conspiracies, “the mechanism established within the framework of the Barbados Agreements has been met.”
Venezuela’s government frequently sidelines adversaries by banning them from public office, and not just in presidential contests.
Such a ban was used retroactively in 2021 to remove gubernatorial candidate Freddy Superlano when he was ahead of a sibling of the late President Hugo Chavez but had not yet been declared the winner. Superlano’s substitute was also kept off the ballot via a ban.
The court on Friday also upheld a ban on former governor and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.
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