María Corina Machado's Triumph: An Opposition Shipwreck?

An advocate of oil privatization who previously called for foreign intervention won Venezuela’s opposition primaries in a landslide. Many questions remain on the path to the 2024 elections.

October 30, 2023

María Corina Machado (World Economic Forum / Bel Pedrosa / CC BY-SA 2.0)

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On October 22, the Venezuelan opposition held a primary consultation to select the candidate to face Nicolás Maduro in the next presidential elections. The overwhelming victory of María Corina Machado (MCM), the most right-wing figure within the opposition political spectrum, has circulated widely. A politician banned from office, a former advocate of abstentionism, a dissident within the opposition, and the landslide winner of the primaries with more than 90 percent of the votes, MCM is now at the center of the national political debate.

Despite an atmosphere of threats, internal controversies, and the logistical challenges of organizing a primary vote with no official government support, the primaries transpired without significant obstacles. Many believe that the Barbados agreement, recently signed between the government and the opposition with the endorsement of the United States, enabled a degree of governmental tolerance towards the event. In Barbados, the United States committed to progressively lifting oil sanctions against Venezuela as long as Maduro committed to holding free elections in 2024. 

However, the Venezuelan government has maintained that the disqualification of MCM from politics is not up for discussion and that on no grounds will she be able to participate in next year’s elections.

The United States government insists that the good standing of the Barbados agreement depends on dropping the ban on Machado's participation in elections and is trying to pressure the Maduro administration in that direction. However, the question remains as to what will happen if her disqualification is not lifted by the deadline for candidates to formally register with the Electoral Council, which is not yet set. On the one hand, how will the United States react? And will the agreements regarding the easing of sanctions be reversed?  On the other hand, will Machado opt again to boycott the elections, as she has done on previous occasions? Or will she  support a candidate who is legally qualified to run? (She has publicly rejected this last option.)

In this scenario, the question also arises as to how the rest of the opposition will reorient itself in relation to Machado and the decisions she makes in the face of these dilemmas. 

It is important to highlight that MCM had a withering victory in the primaries. The second-place candidate Carlos Prosperi, a representative of Venezuela’s most deeply rooted social democratic party, Acción Democrática, received only 4.61 percent of the votes, while each of the remaining candidates did not surpass 1 percent. 

If the relationship between the opposition political parties and Machado had already become increasingly strained, this result complicates things further.

To put MCM’s meteoric rise into perspective, it is enough to recall that in the 2012 primaries, she came in a distant third place, with only 3.8 percent of the votes. At that time she was merely an opposition media figure, with marginal electoral weight and without a seat at the table of the four major opposition parties—Acción Democrática, Un Nuevo Tiempo, Primero Justicia, and Voluntad Popular. Today, after MCM’s primary win with more than 90 percent of the vote, the traditional parties will have to deal with a hyper-leader who not only does not recognize them, but has repeatedly discredited them. 

From 2006 to 2015, the opposition experienced powerful electoral growth propelled by the unity and close coordination between opposition parties, beyond their differences. Already in 2013, however, after Maduro's narrow electoral victory, the consensus and unitary pacts began to crack. For many opposition figures, those elections were fraudulent, and Henrique Capriles Radonski, the opposition presidential candidate at the time, did not have the will to achieve victory. This ultimately fed the thesis, defended by opposition leader Leopoldo López, that the electoral path was closed, and that it was necessary to advance instead through insurrection.

The dispute between Capriles and López—between the electoral and the insurrectional pathways—was the first axis of conflict between the parties. For many grassroots opposition members who protested in the streets in 2014 or 2017, facing fierce government repression, the parties that insisted on negotiating with the government and returning to elections had been co-opted and were betraying their struggle. This perception deepened after the opposition won the National Assembly in 2016 and the government illegally stripped the parliament of its powers, obstructing any legislative action by the opposition.

Later, with the installation of the so-called "interim government" of Juan Guaidó, headed by López's party and backed by Trump, the most extreme sectors of the opposition accused Guaidó and Voluntad Popular of obstructing requests for a military intervention to depose Maduro. Thus, Voluntad Popular and López were victims of the very radicalism they promoted, joining the growing ranks of "traitors," in which Acción Democrática, Un Nuevo Tiempo, and Primero Justicia were already included. At the same time, the corruption scandals linked to the mishandling of public funds to which the "interim government" had access, and which tarnished the four major opposition parties, contributed to all parties being further discredited. 

While this unfolded, MCM did not need to build a big machinery or expand her organizational structures. She simply set about cultivating a careful image of herself as a coherent figure—totally antagonistic to Chavismo, uncompromising, incorruptible, and indomitable. The tone of her political discourse is always probing, managing to connect with the frustration, anger, and feelings of impotence of the opposition base. Today she is reaping the results of this stubborn and methodical determination. 

Furthermore, MCM has fed a liberal narrative that maintains that the opposition and Chavismo depart from the same “statist”, “interventionist,” and “rentier” logics. According to this narrative, a “liberal”, “pro-market,” privatizing government would represent a true break with failed development models of the past. Her economic team has put on the table the privatization of the public oil company PDVSA, which holds a legal monopoly on the exploitation and marketing of oil, alleging that the company has been bankrupted by corruption and is unviable due to its debts and the state of its infrastructure. However, she has not yet publicly presented her economic proposals.

In other words, MCM’s narrative correctly points out the bureaucratic and corrupt excesses of a petro state that does not depend on citizens’ taxes, but on the liquidation of natural capital (oil) in the international market and that therefore tends to concentrate power, patronize politics, and promote a weak enclave economy with many restrictions and few incentives for productive investment. But the narrative also ignores the strides in education, health, infrastructure, and development achieved thanks to a century of governments systematically using oil revenues to address vital and urgent matters for society. A view that revalues the role of the state is difficult to defend in Venezuela today due to the current government’s mafia-like, authoritarian, and corrupt management. Still, it’s worrying to see the rise of a privatization frenzy and an old market fundamentalism that has proven to have many problems in practice and that has not produced very good results in the region.

Beyond her platform and the dilemma vis-à-vis the rest of the opposition, MCM has many obstacles to overcome before ascending to power. Maduro has low social support, but he concentrates a great deal of power, has proven to be astute, and possesses a significant room to maneuver. The degree of MCM’s ability to articulate opposition forces and to deploy a flexible and agile strategy, in addition to sending credible messages to actors outside the opposition—the military and Chavista base—remains to be seen. We must not forget that hubris has been the path to defeat for hyper-leaders.

Damián Alifa is a sociologist and social researcher. He is a contributor to Rebelió,, Nodal, and TalCual. 

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