Venezuela’s Queen of Protest

Venezuela’s Queen of Protest

"The people have awakened!" shouts a somber woman in a blue blazer and white blouse. She goes on to enumerate, in a voice fraught with measured emotion, the facts of daily life in Venezuela that have finally driven its opposition into the streets. Among them are inflation, the destruction of state institutions, unemployment, corruption, and an epidemic of crime that is "killing our children." With its harsh response to mass demonstrations, she says, "the regime has taken off its mask and shown its totalitarian nature, its weakness, and its desperation." She calls on her citizens to act "calmly, with firmness, and above all, confidence" in the face of even violent repression. "We will remain in the streets until we achieve our goal" — a free, sovereign, and democratic Venezuela.

There is little reason to doubt her. María Corina Machado, 46, is a woman who knows the true nature of the Venezuelan regime founded by Hugo Chávez (and continued today by his chosen successor Nicolás Maduro). What’s more, she has every reason to fight it. A recognized politician and orator in her own right, she has often occupied the podium alongside Leopoldo López — or at least she did until last week, when he was arrested. Like López, she has suffered violence from chavista supporters. She has been physically attacked on several occasions — once even on the floor of the National Assembly, when members of Chávez’s socialist party tried to beat her up. Also like López, she is fit, attractive, and exudes competence. In a country where women have made advances in recent years, but which remains deeply patriarchal, Machado has stood out among both sexes — and has been recognized for it, now more than ever. As one of the opposition’s key leaders, she has been organizing demonstrations, addressing crowds, and posing a direct challenge to President Maduro, who was elected in April 2013 with only 50.6 percent of the vote.

Since López’s incarceration on Feb. 18 — he faces trumped-up charges of murder and terrorism for deaths that occurred in recent opposition protests — Machado has traveled Venezuela, comforting the mothers of the opposition’s fallen and urging Venezuelans to stand up for their rights. On Saturday’s march in Caracas, apparently one of the largest ever, she tightly embraced López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, on the podium, and expressed the country’s solidarity with her. She thundered against a regime that has robbed Venezuela of its future and reduced it to ruins, and warned the government that Venezuelan mothers are willing to sacrifice their lives for their children: "It is time to reconquer our future! Venezuela is determined to struggle peacefully until it achieves victory!" In contrast to the deliberately earthy Chávez, Machado, dressed as if for the country club, conveys outrage, but with style.

Opposition to chavismo has always been strongest among Venezuela’s middle and upper classes. An industrial engineer by training, Machado was born into a professional, upper-class family. She speaks English fluently. She cut her teeth in politics as a founder of Súmate (Join Up), a civil rights organization that aims to reverse the rollback of freedoms Chávez began imposing soon after taking office in 1999. In 2004, Súmate welcomed a national referendum to remove the increasingly radical Chávez from the Miraflores Palace, contesting, ultimately to no effect, the validity of the results, which gave his opponents only 39 percent of the vote.

In 2002, during an abortive attempt to overthrow Chávez in a coup, she was among the signatories of a decree — perhaps less than convincingly, she says she signed it by mistake — that prematurely declared a transitional government. This act landed her on Chávez’s enemies list. She soon became one of the Comandante’s most reviled bêtes noires. In fact, the New York Times called her the Venezuelan government’s "most detested adversary," and her 2005 visit to George W. Bush in the Oval Office only hardened negative sentiments in the chavista camp. She faced charges of conspiracy for Súmate‘s acceptance of a modest grant from the National Endowment for Democracy, and went on to become an independent National Assembly deputy for the prosperous, heavily populated state of Miranda, an opposition stronghold bordering Caracas.

As discontent with Chávez grew, Machado, in 2012, sensed that her time had come. She vied with Leopoldo López for the then-fractured opposition’s blessing to face the cancer-stricken president in national elections scheduled for later in the year. She and López both lost out to Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles, who went on to suffer defeat. (Capriles, once the leader of the opposition, has lost credibility with his increasingly angry constituents by advocating compromise. He is now calling on regime opponents to continue their street protests.) In the fight against the Maduro regime, López gained the upper hand, which now, by default, has largely fallen to Machado.

Yet despite previous rivalries, she has stood beside López as resistance to Maduro has mounted, along with the opposition’s chance to gain power. López is in jail, but Machado is not to be counted out.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of, most recently, Topless Jihadis: Inside Femen, the World’s Most Proactive Activist Group.