In Venezuela, Washington and the mainstream media are backing global far right ally María Corina Machado

María Corina Machado

For every decision Venezuela’s opposition has made in recent months, 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.

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. Unlike the 2018 presidential elections and subsequent electoral contests, all opposition parties, large and small, have opted for electoral participation. Even those most stridently opposed to the Chavistas (followers of former president Hugo Chávez) 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 (United Democratic Platform, PUD), are united behind Machado. Last October, she was pronounced the winner in the opposition primaries with a whopping 92% 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 “Maria 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 Urrutia are in some ways at cross purposes. For the center-right (led by the G4 parties: Acción Democrática [Democratic Action, AD], Un Nuevo Tiempo [A New Time] and some of the leaders of Primero Justicia [Justice First]), unseating Maduro is the one and only priority and to do so the unity of the opposition is essential. In fact, it almost does not 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 unity of the opposition by avoiding divisive positions. And second, a less aggressive discourse would stand a better chance of convincing the Chavistas to accept unfavorable electoral results. 

Eduardo Fernández, a presidential candidate in 1988 who aspired to be PUD’s candidate in 2024, called for national unity and “reconciliation” as a way to guarantee unity of the opposition and to convince Chavistas to relinquish power without fear of retribution. 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 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 Urrutia stated that his government program is the same as that put forward by Machado in her bid for the presidency. His candidacy’s program embraces laissez faire economics with a vengeance. Indeed, its position on privatization says it all: “The attraction of private capital is the solution and privatization is the strategy to achieve it.” 

The prospect of the privatization of oil cannot 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 stated “tends to be more leftist in his ideology” than Machado, launched his presidential candidacy supported by the Fuerza Vecinal (Neighborhood Force) party, which explicitly opposes oil privatization. Machado supporters criticized another presidential aspirant, Henrique Capriles, for saying “the oil is the people’s.” 

In spite of differences, Machado has gotten her way at each instance. For example, Primero Justicia’s 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. She then insisted on her right to choose the opposition’s main candidate. The PUD heavily debated the issue but again ended up giving in to her demand. 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 Urrutia, she has given orders to her allies not to refer to the total privatization of health, education and the state oil company PDVSA. Furthermore, 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 to think that the new line is anything more than a pragmatic campaign tactic. Furthermore, González lacks the political capital to be able to buck the will of Machado, 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.” 

Washington: Machado’s faithful ally

Among the leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, Machado is Washington’s unmistakable favorite. The Biden administration backs her even though she expressed sympathy for Donald Trump on the eve of the 2020 US presidential elections. Certainly, from an ideological viewpoint, the centrist Biden has more in common with PUD leaders such as 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 Urrutia became the opposition’s candidate. During that period, a journalist asked Francisco Palmieri, head of the US 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 US discarded other options to unseat Maduro. 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 US 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 in the case of 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 questions and 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 had run for president on AD’s ticket in 1993 and is one of the ten presidential candidates for 2024, said “I have 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. 

Machado’s hard line on Chavistas may also be to Washington’s liking. During the Trump administration, Machado even called on Washington to call off efforts to establish a dialogue with Maduro, calling such an endeavor a “fraud.” Echoing allegations coming 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 hardline 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. León’s position is especially compelling given that the new presidential term does not begin until 6 months after the July 28 elections. 

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 more likely to facilitate a radical break with the Chavista past and facilitate the implementation of the radical brand of neoliberalism that she stands for. 

The mainstream media: Machado’s other faithful ally

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

A case in point is the declarations of Colombia’s ex-president Ernesto Samper, unreported in the mainstream media, that the sanctions represent a form of “monetary colonialism” and an intrusion in the internal affairs of Venezuela and elsewhere. 

The mainstream media has served as an echo chamber for Machado’s claims, even those that some consider to be dubious. 

Machado’s claim that she enjoys overwhelming and unconditional domestic and international support buttresses two central arguments of hers. First, that she had the right to choose the opposition’s candidate. And second, that this time around, unlike in previous years, electoral abstentionism was unnecessary. But are her assertions credible? Plain facts place them in doubt. 

The corporate media, for instance, takes for granted the accuracy of the announced results of the opposition’s primaries last October. Machado had vetoed the participation of the National Electoral Council (CNE) in the process, which Capriles and other center-right leaders favored on grounds that it promised greater logistical support, including 5000 voting centers. Instead, the primaries were supervised by the NGO Súmate, which Machado herself had founded and had been a vice president of, and which opened just slightly over half the number of voting centers, some of them in people’s homes.

In the past, Súmate had been denounced 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 runner-up candidate for the primaries held in October 2023, Carlos Prosperi of AD, questioned the accuracy of the official tally, an accusation reinforced by the fact that Súmate failed to undertake an audit of the primaries and immediately burned the ballots.

León also questions her claim of enjoying 80% support of the electorate and adds that the rallies of Capriles for the 2012 presidential elections were “absolutely and clearly superior to all of Machado’s mobilizations.” 

León also argued that there were too many variables to predict that Machado would win on July 28. León has forcefully argued that without committing fraud, but through what he calls “electoral engineering,” Maduro could win the elections. In a way of example, León refers to the possibility of extremely long lines outside voting centers in middle-class areas that are opposition strongholds. 

Machado and the rise of the international far right 

Back in 2012, Machado received less than 4% 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 the efforts to create what has been called an “emerging reactionary international,” or what Steven Forti called in NACLA “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 twenty-first century Latin America. Machado’s embrace of laissez faire capitalism, including deregulation to “stimulate private initiative,” points in the direction of “shock-treatment” style neoliberalism. This pattern manifests itself in Milei’s commitment to “destroy the state from within” and his concomitant shock treatment policies, as well as 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-US and hostile to its 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. 

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 Partido Popular (Popular Party, PP) of Spain, but also stresses her special relationship with the far-right Vox — which according to Jacobin played a ”central role in an emerging reactionary international” — and called its head Santiago Abascal her “friend.” 

The support Machado receives from right-wing allies throughout the world is more emphatic and strongly worded than that from centrists. Thus, for instance, 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” and claimed, as Machado forcefully did at the time, that Chávez really lost the 2004 recall election, even though he was declared victor with 59% of the vote. 

Machado, like Milei and Brazil’s Bolsonaro, embodies features of populism: she is a charismatic, polarizing figure with a Manichean discourse who lacks the backing of a strong political party. 

In many countries, the center-right (the PP in Spain and Republican Party leaders in the US) 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 (Colombia, Argentina). 

The political polarization behind these tendencies is exactly what is taking place in Venezuela. There on July 28 voters will be choosing between a far-right candidate and Maduro, situated on the left side 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 Machado. 

A slightly abridged version of this article was posted by NACLA: Report on the Americas. 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: Dependency, Resource Nationalism and Resistance in Broad Perspective (2021) and his coedited Latin American Social Movements and Progressive Governments: Creative Tensions Between Resistance and Convergence (2022).