What the Mainstream Media Isn’t Saying About Venezuela’s María Corina Machado

Machado is not the godsend for the opposition portrayed by the media and her close supporters. But opposition leaders have more cause for hope than in the past.

July 5, 2024

María Corina Machado waves while campaigning for her surrogate, Edmundo González Urrutia, in Maracaibo, Venezuela, May 2, 2024. (Humberto Matheus / Shutterstock)

For every decision Venezuela’s opposition has made in recent months, the far-rightist María Corina Machado has had the last word. Center-right leaders, meanwhile, have ended up capitulating to her demands. Her success has much to do with the backing she has received from two faithful allies: Washington and the mainstream media.

With all the hype over Machado being the only real hope for Venezuela to overcome 25 years of autocratic rule, the mainstream media loses sight of several key factors surrounding the nation’s presidential elections slated for July 28. First, the United States has played a central role in favor of Machado’s candidacy and, once it was clear that the government of Nicolas Maduro would not allow her to run, Washington backed the notion that she had the right to choose who would represent the so-called united democratic opposition at the polls. Second, it was never clear on what basis Machado claimed to have that right, especially in light of the fact that there were contenders who were as anti-Maduro as her pick and were infinitely more qualified. And third, Machado’s rise as the supreme leader of the Venezuelan opposition is part of a worldwide trend in which far-right leaders and movements have achieved major inroads.

Unlike the 2018 presidential elections and subsequent electoral contests, all opposition parties, large and small, have opted to participate in this election. Even those most stridently opposed to the Chavistas now recognize that electoral abstentionism had been a losing game. Furthermore, the four main opposition parties, known as the G4, and its broader alliance, the Plataforma Unitaria Democrática (PUD), are united behind Machado. Last October, she was pronounced the winner in the opposition primaries with a whopping 92 percent of the vote.

The Venezuelan government has disqualified Machado from holding public office for a number of reasons. The initial one was her acceptance in 2014 of a diplomatic position from the government of Panama enabling her to address the Organization of American States, where she called for foreign intervention in Venezuela. In June 2023, the National Controller reimposed the ban.

After that, Machado insisted that popular support at home coupled with international pressure would force the Maduro government to back down. Shortly before the deadline for registering candidates this March, Machado switched gears by choosing a surrogate to run in her place. In a surprise move, she convinced Edmundo González Urrutia, a little-known former diplomat with no charisma and admittedly no desire to run for office, to be PUD’s presidential candidate. Upon accepting the candidacy, González revealed that he had no intention of barnstorming around the country, adding “María Corina is doing it very well.”

González has participated in only one of Machado’s 10 large presidential campaign rallies held to date. “Machado dominates the stage,” wrote Resumen Latinoamericano, adding “she converted herself into the queen of the [rally] platforms” and in the process has eclipsed all other PUD leaders.

In spite of the opposition’s unity, or at least the appearance of it, two major political currents supporting the candidacy of González are in some ways at cross purposes. For the center-right—led by the G4 parties Acción Democrática (AD), Un Nuevo Tiempo, and some of the leaders of Primero Justicia—unseating President Maduro is the one and only priority, and to do so the unity of the opposition is essential. In fact, it almost doesn’t matter who the united candidate is because the opposition’s principal message is that the removal of Maduro from office will put an abrupt end to the country’s economic hardships.

The center-right’s strategy for reaching power differs from that of Machado and the far-right in two aspects. First, by focusing its message on unseating Maduro, as opposed to specific policies, the center-right hopes to guarantee opposition unity by avoiding divisive positions. Second, a less aggressive discourse would stand a better chance of convincing the Chavistas to accept unfavorable electoral results.

Eduardo Fernández, who ran for president in 1988 and aspired to be PUD’s 2024 candidate, called for national unity and “reconciliation.” Another presidential runner, Antonio Ecarri, who is outside the PUD’s fold, has pledged to retain Vladimir Padrino López as defense minister. The proposal is designed to convince the Chavistas that repression against them will not be forthcoming, much as Violeta Chamorro attempted to do in 1990 when she named the Sandinista Humberto Ortega to head the Army.

In another sign that he is a stand-in, González stated that his government program is the same as that put forward by Machado in her bid for the presidency. His platform embraces laissez-faire economics with a vengeance, proclaiming: “The attraction of private capital is the solution and privatization is the strategy to achieve it.”

The prospect of the privatization of oil can’t sit well with AD and its offshoot Un Nuevo Tiempo, which take credit for the industry’s nationalization in 1976 by an AD government. Un Nuevo Tiempo’s Manuel Rosales, who Bloomberg described as “tend[ing] to be more leftist in his ideology” than Machado, launched his presidential candidacy supported by the Fuerza Vecinal party, which explicitly opposes oil privatization. Machado supporters criticized another presidential aspirant, Henrique Capriles of Primero Justicia, for saying “the oil is the people’s.”  

In spite of differences, Machado has gotten her way in each instance. For example, Capriles, who was also prohibited from running, dropped out of the primaries to avoid giving the government an excuse to keep the PUD completely on the sidelines. But Machado refused to do the same. Then she insisted on her right to choose the opposition’s main candidate. The PUD heavily debated the issue but ended up giving in. Some PUD leaders supported Machado out of fear that she would opt for electoral abstentionism, a possibility that Capriles alluded to during the primaries campaign.

Since Machado chose González, she has given orders to her allies not to refer to the total privatization of health care, education, or the state oil company PDVSA. González raises the possibility of implementing “transitional justice,” which implies leniency toward leading Chavistas. However, Machado is too closely identified with radical positions on the right for this new line to be anything more than a pragmatic campaign tactic. Furthermore, González lacks the political capital to buck Machado’s will, even if he has the intention to do so.

Carlos Ron, Venezuela’s Deputy Minister for North America, told me: “Machado isn’t fooling anyone by not talking about mass privatization. Throughout her political career, this has been her most cherished banner.

Machado’s Faithful Allies

Among the leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, Machado is Washington’s unmistakable favorite. The Biden administration backs her even though she expressed sympathy for Trump on the eve of the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. Certainly, from an ideological viewpoint, the centrist Biden has more in common with PUD leaders like Rosales and Capriles than with Machado.

Washington’s singular preference for Machado became particularly evident between January 26, when the Supreme Tribunal of Justice definitively ruled that she could not run for president, and April 19, when González became the opposition’s candidate. During that period, a journalist asked Francisco Palmieri, head of the U.S. mission for Venezuela located in Bogotá, if “any opposition candidate would satisfy the Biden administration.” Palmieri went straight to the point: “We have and will continue to support María Corina Machado as the candidate of the democratic opposition.”  

In assuming this stance, the U.S. discarded other options to unseat Maduro. Manuel Rosales, for instance, had much going for him. In addition to having been elected mayor of Maracaibo and then three times as governor of the populous state of Zulia, his presidential candidacy was endorsed by Fuerza Vecinal, a new party with a good electoral track record. Palmieri justified U.S. support for Machado on grounds that she won the opposition primaries, but Rosales had not participated in them.

Furthermore, there are nine candidates who are running against Maduro in the July 28 elections. The hardline opposition accuses some of them of “collaborating” with Maduro and calls them “alacranes” (scorpions). But not all of them, such as Ecarri, can even remotely be called collaborators.

The failure of the Biden administration to maintain a neutral position with regard to the internal divisions of the opposition raises a number of issues.

First and foremost, given the attractiveness of other presidential candidates, Washington’s unconditional support for Machado is not only an intrusion in the internal affairs of Venezuela, but in the internal affairs of the Venezuelan opposition. Claudio Fermín, who ran for president on AD’s ticket in 1993 and is one of the 10 presidential candidates for 2024, said he has “never seen this degree of external intervention in a Venezuelan electoral campaign,” adding that it has received “exuberant approval” from some.

Washington’s unswerving support for Machado may be related to her extreme version of neoliberalism, which includes the privatization of the oil industry, and to her hard line on the Chavistas. During the Trump administration, Machado even urged Washington to call off efforts to establish a dialogue with Maduro, dubbing such an endeavor a “fraud.” Echoing allegations from Washington, she rejected “impunity” for Chavistas who she called “criminals and mafiosos who have utilized money coming from drug trafficking and the food of Venezuelans.”

This hard line runs counter to the thesis put forward by opposition pollster Luis Vicente León that negotiations between the opposition and the Maduro government are necessary and even inevitable, regardless of who wins on July 28.  

Machado’s decision to choose a surrogate and center the campaign on herself appears designed to mock the government and its decision to ban her from running. Her conflictive and confrontational approach is likely to facilitate a major break with the Chavista past and the implementation of the radical brand of neoliberalism that she stands for. 

Machado’s other faithful ally, the mainstream media, has meticulously reported each of her accusations against the Maduro government for violating democratic norms of the electoral process. However, the most far-reaching violation of the principle of democracy is not reported at all, namely the devastating U.S.-imposed sanctions on Venezuela, which will influence many to vote for the opposition as the only way to normalize relations with Washington.

The mainstream media has served as an echo chamber for Machado’s claims, even those that some consider to be dubious, such as the degree of support she commands among the electorate.

For instance, the corporate media takes for granted the accuracy of the announced results of the opposition’s primaries last October that gave Machado 92 percent of the vote. Machado had vetoed the participation of the National Electoral Council (CNE) in the process while insisting that it be supervised by the NGO Súmate, which she cofound and formerly helped lead, serving as vice president. In the past, Súmate has faced criticism for being funded by the notorious National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Indeed, the late opposition leader Teodoro Petkoff had called Súmate authoritarian and refused to participate in the opposition’s presidential primaries in 2006, which Súmate was to supervise, on grounds that the organization was not reliable.

The Rise of the International Far Right

Back in 2012, Machado received less than 4 percent of the vote in the opposition’s presidential primaries. Her rise as the “principal leader of the opposition” is a sign of the times and boosts efforts to create what has been described as an “emerging reactionary international,” or what Steven Forti called in the Spring 2024 NACLA Report “a big global family” of the extreme right.

Most of the salient features of Machado’s discourse and positions coincide with those of reactionary leaders and movements that have emerged in 21st-century Latin America. Machado’s embrace of laissez-faire capitalism, including deregulation to “stimulate private initiative,” points in the direction of neoliberal shock therapy. This pattern manifests itself in Argentine President Javier Milei’s commitment to “destroy the state from within” and his concomitant shock treatment policies, as well as in the defense by Chile’s far-right leader José Antonio Kast of Pinochet’s “economic legacy.”  

Machado’s positions on international relations also dovetail with those of the far-right elsewhere in the region. Machado makes no secret of being pro-U.S. and hostile to Washington’s adversaries, including Russia, China and Iran. Along the same lines, she predicts that “once we achieve what we are going to in Venezuela, this will be the final sword thrust into regimes like Nicaragua and Cuba.”

One of the salient features of the far right is its expression of hate for the Left, which Machado’s rhetoric reproduces. She attacks the São Paulo Forum and implicitly accuses it of assenting to “criminal dynamics that go from obscene and ferocious corruption to financing drug trafficking…[and] terrorist groups.”  

To her credit, though, and in contrast to the far right elsewhere, she adheres to moderate positions on social issues such as gay marriage, which she accepts, and abortion.  

Machado is an internationalist. She not only assumes reactionary positions but has openly supported and forged relationships with rightists in Europe, Israel, and Latin America. She also, like Milei and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, embodies features of populism: she is a charismatic, polarizing figure with a Manichean discourse who lacks the backing of a strong political party.

As the far right does elsewhere, Machado takes sides in elections in favor of her ideological counterparts in other countries. Machado hoped for the “definitive defeat of Kirchnerism” in the 2023 elections in Argentina, at the same time that she called Milei “super-clear, bold, full of energy.” She maintains ties with the rightist Popular Party of Spain, but also stresses her special relationship with the far-right Vox, a key force articulating with the Latin American new right, and called its head Santiago Abascal her “friend.” In a video interview with Machado, the right-wing ex-president of Colombia Iván Duque asserted that the Venezuelan opposition should be called “the resistance.”

In many countries, the center-right—like the Partido Popular in Spain and Republican Party leaders in the United States—have made deals with, or have accepted the terms imposed by, the far right. In other countries, traditional centrist parties have been reduced to a shadow of their former selves and have been displaced by the far right, such as in Colombia and Argentina.

The political polarization behind these tendencies is exactly what is taking place in Venezuela. On July 28, voters will choose between a far-right candidate and the incumbent Maduro, situated on the left of the political spectrum. Regardless of the electoral outcome, the center-right leaders of the PUD will not easily recover from the bruises received from far-rightist María Corina Machado.  

Steve Ellner is an Associate Managing Editor of Latin American Perspectives and a retired professor of the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela. His latest books include his edited Latin American Extractivism (2021) and his coedited Latin American Social Movements and Progressive Governments (2022).

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