Key players are moving their pieces on the chessboard of Venezuelan politics, raising hopes for a democratic transition in a country that has been on an authoritarian trajectory for more than two decades.
In a significant move, Venezuela's opposition has selected longtime activist María Corina Machado as its presidential candidate for the upcoming elections in 2024. Machado emerged victorious in the primary, winning almost 93 percent of the votes cast. However, her eligibility to hold political office is in question after she was declared ineligible in June for having supported U.S. sanctions against the regime.
The Biden administration is seeking to facilitate a successful electoral process by relaxing sanctions against Venezuela as a goodwill gesture towards Maduro's government. However, they have made it clear that these sanctions will be reimposed if Maduro fails to fulfill his commitment to democratic practices, including resolving the issue of Machado's eligibility.
While the Venezuelan government has allowed the opposition to hold the primary and has agreed to permit international observation of the electoral process, it remains uncertain whether Machado will be allowed to run and take office if she wins. The regime's recent announcement of a criminal investigation into the primary raises concerns about the fairness of the electoral process.
Given Maduro's track record of resisting democratic transitions and holding onto power, there are doubts about his genuine support for free and fair elections. This uncertainty leaves Machado's eligibility up in the air, potentially forcing the opposition to replace her with a less prominent figure and discouraging voters who have witnessed rigged elections in the past.
Though the opposition may draw hope from their previous victory in a gubernatorial race, winning a presidential race poses much higher stakes. Maduro and his followers may be unwilling to relinquish their amassed wealth and power, along with the risk of being held accountable for human rights violations and other crimes.
Maduro's decision to negotiate with the opposition and allow their campaign to proceed may be part of his calculation to secure victory and maintain some ambiguity. By doing so, he hopes to secure permanent sanctions relief and attract the foreign investment necessary to rebuild Venezuela's deteriorating petroleum sector.
The Biden administration's shift away from the "maximum pressure" approach of the Trump era indicates a desire to explore alternative strategies. While a flawed election process might grant the opposition political space, the message it sends may be to persevere and continue building their efforts for a future opportunity under more favorable conditions.
As Venezuela navigates this crucial period, hopes for a democratic transition persist alongside the recognition that worst-case scenarios have become all too familiar in the country's recent history.