Elephants in the Room

Don’t Let Venezuela’s Government Smear the Opposition’s Brightest Star

Maduro’s autocratic regime is going after María Corina Machado because she is fearless and incorruptible. She needs Washington’s support.

Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado (C) takes part in a women's march in Caracas on May 6, 2017.
Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado (C) takes part in a women's march in Caracas on May 6, 2017. ( FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Following his orchestrated re-election in May, which was widely condemned as a “sham,” Venezuela’s autocratic leader, Nicolás Maduro, went on a charm offensive. He is now busy attempting to convince everyone that this time he is serious about national reconciliation and dialogue.

Among other gestures, he went on state television to announce that he was conditionally releasing nearly 40 jailed members of the political opposition as “an act of generosity, of benevolence.” He also met with U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after which he released Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen who had been unjustly jailed in Venezuela on trumped-up weapons charges. Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodríguez said regarding the release: “We hope this gesture strengthens dialogue and respect toward our independence.” It all turned out to be window dressing.

Instead, what appears to be happening in Venezuela since the election is a hardening of resolve. The Maduro regime recognizes that now is the time to complete the consolidation of control in a Cuba-like fashion for years to come. The first sign of a new crackdown came within the military. Scores of military officials have been arrested in recent weeks. Reuters reported that “the number of new detentions of soldiers for treason, rebellion and desertion rose to 172 in the first four months of 2018,” more than three times the number during the same period last year.

A second ominous sign was the naming of regime hard-liner Diosdado Cabello as the new head of the regime’s all-powerful Constituent Assembly, which was created to unconstitutionally supplant the duly elected and opposition-controlled National Assembly.

The former military officer has been sanctioned by the United States for his involvement in drug trafficking, money laundering, and embezzlement. Indeed, Cabello is a man with absolutely no incentive to negotiate any lessening of the regime’s total control.

According to a report by the Caracas Capital investment bank, “As the country enters this new phase, we expect an increase in instability, vulnerability, cruelty and an inability to govern, while the Maduro regime tries to finish destroying what little is left of the country’s democratic institutions.”

But what has alarmed many observers is an increased campaign of harassment and intimidation against opposition leader María Corina Machado, one of the most visible and outspoken critics of the Maduro regime. Among all opposition figures in Venezuela, there is no one who confounds the regime more than Machado.

She is a woman, and she is fearless, incorruptible, and uncompromising on her basic principles. She maintains that there is no solution to Venezuela’s crisis other than the replacement of Maduro’s corrupt, rotten regime.

A mother of three, Machado got involved in politics in 2001, and in 2002 co-founded the vote-monitoring group Súmate (“Join Up”) that led a petition drive for a recall election of Hugo Chávez. She was elected to the National Assembly in 2010 before being stripped of her position by the government in 2014 after denouncing its anti-democratic bent at the Organization of American States, or OAS. (She also ran for president in 2012.)

As she told the Spanish daily El Nuevo Herald recently, “I foresee a period of enormous repression, which they are already planning, not only against civil society but also against the … armed forces … who understand that Venezuela is today a failed state controlled by an outlaw regime.”

While other figures have been debilitated by a relentless Cuba-style campaign to divide and disorient the Venezuelan opposition through repression, harassment, intimidation, infiltration, and bribery, Machado has never wavered. She has almost single-handedly discredited the regime’s attempts to establish a dialogue with the opposition by refusing to participate in the absence of concrete preconditions such as releasing all political prisoners, ending the harassment of opposition leaders, and restoring the power of the National Assembly. She also was outspoken in calling for a boycott of Maduro’s fraudulent re-election. “There is only one path,” she said after the election. “And that’s the route of total disobedience.”

As such, she has seen her profile as the leader of the Venezuelan opposition rise. A poll conducted last November found that she would have won a hypothetical primary vote against other opposition figures, garnering 26 percent of the vote, eight points ahead of her rivals.

The regime recognizes that Machado is the last obstacle to finally crippling the opposition. It needs her off the streets or in exile — a strategy the Castro regime in Cuba has employed to great effect over six decades. Thus, it has begun an intimidation campaign alleging she is involved in fomenting a military uprising against the regime. Machado and her associates scoff at the accusation.

Fortunately, regional leaders also dismiss the spurious charge. Twenty-six former Latin American elected leaders condemned the effort to “criminalize” her and issued an “urgent call to the international community, to the Prosecutor before the International Criminal Court, and to public opinion, about this very serious absurdity.”

OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro also issued a statement expressing “deep concern” over her political persecution, which has included state media amplifying the allegations and speculating on her arrest as well as increased state security surveillance. Colombian President-elect Iván Duque weighed in on her behalf, as did the government of Brazil and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

There is still time for the Trump administration to add its voice as well. Courageous freedom fighters such as Machado who take on authoritarian regimes operate with very little protection to ensure their personal safety or that of their families. (Members of Machado’s family, including her children, have received threats.) One of the few protections they do have is international awareness and solidarity.

Now more than ever, friends of democracy and decency everywhere need to lend their voices in support of one of the last holdouts in Venezuela with a different vision for her country’s future.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
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