The last time Venezuelans went to the polls in 2018, the political opposition to Nicolás Maduro, the president, deemed the election so farcical it walked away from the contest.
Since then, a fractured opposition has largely resigned itself to watching helplessly as Hugo Chávez’s successor tightened his grip on power and the country fell ever deeper into chaos.
About 7.3 million people have fled insecurity, poverty and persecution since 2014 and another 2,000 Venezuelans are risking their lives every day to cross the jungles of the Darién Gap.
Now, however, the opposition is back on the streets campaigning. Maduro has promised to hold fair elections in 2024 and there is growing hope the opposition’s frontrunner, María Corina Machado, might even beat him at the ballot box.
The only snag is Venezuela’s controller general has barred her from holding office for 15 years for allegedly supporting economic sanctions on Venezuela.
“I think the regime knows, and it’s clear to everyone, that I will beat Maduro by a landslide,” Machado said in an interview with the Guardian ahead of primaries on Sunday to select who leads the opposition. “That’s precisely why they are acting desperately and committed this huge mistake. It’s going to backfire.”
Machado has been viewed as an extreme figure in the opposition due to her calls for foreign military intervention and her fierce opposition to participation in undemocratic elections.
Despite such outspoken views, since Machado’s surprise decision to participate in the vote, she has quickly become the favourite to take on Maduro.
Though never reliable in Venezuela, where free speech is scant and censorship rife, polls say Machado is ahead with 41% of the vote.
“I think Venezuelans still think she is radical, but they feel so abandoned by the previous opposition leadership, and so hopeless. They need leadership and they need hope – and I think that’s what people see in María Corina Machado: their last hope,” said María Puerta Riera, a Venezuelan political scientist at Valencia College in Orlando.
Machado’s central campaign pledge is toppling Maduro and getting the country’s collapsed economy back on its feet.
Despite having some of the world’s largest oil reserves, economic mismanagement and rampant corruption have made life in Venezuela impossible for millions. Sanctions imposed by the Trump administration have compounded the economic misery. About half the country lives in poverty and a quarter of the population has already fled.
The Venezuelan state commits the most egregious of human rights abuses, including torture, sexual violence and extrajudicial killings, international organisations including the UN have found.
With Maduro’s popularity dwindling, the minimum wage at less than $5 a month and growing protests by public sector workers gathering steam, analysts say Machado would have a good shot at beating Maduro in a fair contest.
“It’s truly extraordinary what we’ve been seeing on the streets,” said a bullish Machado. “Not only are more and more people coming to our rallies but increasingly they are members of the Chavista movement, showing the regime has lost its social base.”
The Venezuelan opposition has been trying to get the government to commit to holding a democratic contest since it initiated formal talks with the Maduro camp in Mexico in 2021.
Secret talks between Venezuela and the US yielded a breakthrough this week, when the Maduro government promised that elections will be held fairly in the second half of 2024 and overseen by international observers in exchange for the US lifting sanctions on oil exports.
Five of the more than 200 political prisoners held in Venezuela’s jails were also released on Tuesday, according to opposition negotiators. Among those freed were two opposition leaders, including Juan Requesens, a former legislator of the Justice First Party who was imprisoned in 2018 for allegations of trying to assassinate Maduro with drones laden with explosives.
The Venezuelan government refused, however, to lift the ban on several candidates including Machado, who was not involved in the negotiations and blasted the deal for not going far enough.
Analysts say the agreement is a turning point after years of political deadlock but remain skeptical that the Venezuelan dictator will actually hold a democratic contest in which he could be beaten.
“It’s unlikely that the vote will be completely free and fair,” said Geoff Ramsey, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The challenge for the opposition will be to mobilise enough votes to make sure that if and when Maduro cheats, he’ll have to do so under massive international scrutiny.”
Meanwhile Maduro continues to use the courts and state security forces to clamp down on political opposition.
A recent report by Amnesty International found that the government arbitrarily arrests friends and family members of political activists to silence government criticism.
The authoritarian is also trying out some new tricks. Days after a website was set up to help Venezuelans find voting stations at home and abroad for October’s primaries the state-run telecoms company blocked the web page.
“This is the latest in the government’s long history of censoring internet access in Venezuela. Media outlets, NGOs, and political parties have all had to contend with a digital blackout in the country and it’s getting more and more sophisticated,” said Ramsey.
The opposition acknowledges any elections will probably be unfair yet remains committed to participating in elections, said Machado, who is travelling the length of the country by car as the government has banned her from flying. It is not clear what will happen if Machado wins on Sunday.
“We’re not naive. We’ve been through 15 initiatives of dialogue and had 35 elections in these 20 years. Every time these elections are more rigged,” she said.
The ban on holding office, which was widely dismissed by foreign countries as a flimsy attempt to cheat democracy, is one example of how they can hurt Maduro, even without elections, Machado said.
“Some thought the government banning me might demoralise us and our followers but it had the exact opposite effect, creating this new enthusiasm that nobody expected,” she said.
International organisations, including the United Nations and the European Union, and countries such as the US, UK and Germany quickly rejected Machado’s disqualification. Even Colombia’s first leftist president, Gustavo Petro, who has previously refrained from criticising Maduro, was pressured into giving an awkward rejection of the ban.
“You wouldn’t be interviewing me if things had not changed so dramatically in the last six months,” said Machado.
The opposition is now focusing on convincing other nations that the Venezuela crisis needs an urgent solution, she added.
For leaders in Europe and the US, Machado is pledging to restore the country’s collapsed petroleum industry, which could help alleviate a global energy crisis.
“We are reminding people that Maduro is not a traditional dictatorship. It’s complete chaos. We want to leave the chaos behind, get back to growth and address the humanitarian crisis. Everybody will win,” she says.