Blacklisted and Muzzled, Maduro’s Top Rival Can’t Be Held Down (1)

María Corina Machado greets her supporters during a rally in San Cristóbal, Táchira state. (Fabiola Ferrero/Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bl)

(Bloomberg) -- Despite Nicolás Maduro’s best efforts, María Corina Machado is everywhere.

The Venezuelan opposition leader, who won’t appear on the presidential ballot later this month, has sent the ruling party scurrying to stop the fervor behind her. She’s united a long-fractured opposition coalition that once ostracized her. But most of all, she’s built a powerful, energized citizen movement that, according to some long-time observers, is unlike any seen here since the late Hugo Chávez — President Maduro’s mentor and idol — rose from obscurity to unseat the political establishment in the 1990s.

“She is coming! She is coming! María 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 on either side can be seen cheering and crying. The number of spectators is even larger than it appears, with many attending via video call as relatives in the swarming crowd dial them in to catch a glimpse of Machado. There are no bodyguards to shield her, so the multitude freely passes her letters, flowers, rosaries, food, paintings and religious figures. Some reach out just to touch her.

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

It’s no wonder Machado has become a messianic-like figure for Venezuelans who are desperate for change. They’ve watched their country fall apart under a political movement that promised social justice and equality but led to the biggest humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly 80% of Venezuelans are living in poverty and millions have fled seeking opportunities elsewhere. That very story played out in Yuncoza’s family. At 60, he’s reached retirement age, but like many older Venezuelans, he is still working — 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 what Machado’s movement will lead to. She's been banned from holding public office until 2030, and it's unlikely that Maduro would step aside. The Venezuelan government is expecting protests should Maduro be declared winner, and in recent months Machado has consistently repeated that she will “make the votes count” when the election comes, alluding to potential tampering.

For now, Machado has been campaigning on behalf of her stand-in candidate, 74-year-old former diplomat Edmundo González. Her popularity overshadows that of Juan Guaidó, the lawmaker who in 2019 was recognized as the country’s interim president by the US and dozens of nations, following Maduro’s illegitimate reelection in 2018. In some places, like San Cristóbal, she’s bringing more people to the streets than Henrique Capriles, the two-time presidential candidate who in 2013 only lost to Maduro by a small margin. 

Machado’s rise is the product of her unique character among establishment politicians, and timing. Fed-up voters are looking for the polar opposite of Maduro, and she is that. She’s a woman. She comes from a wealthy family, but can still connect with the nation’s most vulnerable. She believes in dismantling government controls on the economy and privatizing the oil industry. And she’s been consistent in her messaging for years: She’s often remembered for interrupting one of Chávez’s speeches in 2012 to criticize the damage he’d inflicted on the Venezuelan economy, and she later led the 2014 street protests against Maduro.

That’s all coincided with a significant change in Venezuelans’ attitude, said Benigno Alarcón, director of the political studies center at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. People are starting to believe they can achieve a change without reliance on a person or institution, and have grown tired of poor government handouts. They would rather earn their own money.

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

Machado, the 56-year-old former lawmaker, believes it’s a two-way dynamic. “We empower each other,” she said from her party’s run-down headquarters in San Cristóbal, with a water-damaged ceiling overhead. 

Ultimately, how far Machado — and her supporters — can go is up to Maduro. The government has been trying to stem her influence. She says she can’t appear on TV or radio stations. Power outages often interrupt her scheduled appearances. The venues she visits are fined or shut down. Those who help her are persecuted, or even imprisoned. In the San Cristóbal rally on June 28, locals say the government went as far as drilling gaping potholes into nearby roads to stop people from being able to get to the town, warned cab drivers not to pick up journalists or Machado’s aides, and forced merchants to keep their businesses open to prevent workers from attending her rally. Employees were instead seen pressed up against store windows to get a chance to see her. The Information Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

“It speaks to a delayed hunger for life that Venezuelans have,” said María Teresa Urreiztieta, a doctor in social psychology and expert in social movements. “It speaks to every life project that has come to a halt, broken families and gaping wounds that we now share in collective mourning.”Following in her footsteps, Maduro arrived in Táchira on Wednesday, where he campaigned in a municipality on the Colombian border, about 40 miles west from San Cristóbal. 

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

If anything, the attempts to repress her have helped feed the fervor behind the “iron woman” — a seeming reference to Margaret Thatcher — as many now call her.  

José Alberto Aguilar, a 45-year-old merchant, and his family had to overcome several blockades in the 60-mile road from the town of Seboruco to the San Cristóbal rally. He just wanted to catch a glimpse of Machado and, if lucky, get close enough to hand her his one-year-old daughter, Ana Paula, wearing a onesie that said “baby with María Corina.”

It’s something that’s become a common sight during Machado’s events. 

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

Adults, too, have thrown themselves into her arms, sobbing. 

Still, it’s hard to imagine a world in which Maduro would cede power. 

Despite lagging 20 percentage points behind González, Maduro still believes he can win, according to people with knowledge of his thought process. 

Should he be miscalculating, Maduro has backup plans: He could disqualify González, annul the opposition’s voting card, suspend the election or even alter the vote’s results, the people said. 

Watch: Inside Venezuela

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

Should a new wave of national protests break out over a Maduro victory, it could present a serious threat for his administration, which killed more than 100 people during anti-government demonstrations in 2017.  It could also put a halt to the nation’s nascent recovery, including newly signed projects by the state-oil company and ramped up oil production from international oil majors, including US driller Chevron, which account for more than 95% of Venezuela’s foreign revenue.

Another exodus is expected, too, should Maduro secure a third term. A May survey shows 41% of the country’s estimated 28.8 million remaining citizens will consider leaving.

“We are going to defend our votes,” said Daneska Ramírez, a 45-year-old hair stylist, 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.

(Updates with Maduro’s visit to Tachira in the 14th paragraph. An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling of a last name in the thirteenth paragraph.)

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