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Venezuela's opposition is preparing for next year's general election


During a nearly quarter century in power, Venezuela's socialist government has gradually dismantled the country's democracy. Now opposition leaders are betting on next year's presidential election to unseat Venezuela's authoritarian leader, Nicolas Maduro. But as John Otis reports, there's growing evidence that Maduro may fix the election to stay in power.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Opposition politicians in Venezuela have long been deeply divided, often spending more time targeting each other rather than taking on the government. But now they are coming together. Their goal is to oust President Maduro and end years of democratic backsliding and economic strife that has provoked mass migration out of the country.


MARIA CORINA MACHADO: Venezuela has endured 24 years of intense devastation, motivating the exodus of a quarter of our population.

OTIS: That's Maria Corina Machado, a former Venezuelan lawmaker, speaking last week at the Council of the Americas in New York. She and other opposition politicians will take part in a primary this fall so voters can decide which one of them will face Maduro in next year's election. Polls show that the right-wing Machado is favored to win the primary, and she's already predicting Maduro's downfall.


MACHADO: First and foremost, it is essential that the international community prepares for the end of the Maduro regime.

OTIS: Indeed, Maduro would seem vulnerable. He's deeply unpopular. The International Criminal Court is investigating his regime for crimes against humanity. And he's been unable to rescue the economy, which has been further crippled by U.S. sanctions on Venezuela's vital oil industry.

GEOFF RAMSEY: The sanctions are really impacting Venezuela's economy.

OTIS: That's Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. In exchange for lifting sanctions, the U.S. is demanding that Maduro hold a free and fair election next year. Such a trade-off, Ramsey says, may have some support within Maduro's inner circle.

RAMSEY: It's important not to see this government as a monolith. There are elements inside the Maduro regime that want a political future, that are tired of sanctions and are interested in rejoining the international community.

OTIS: Envoys for Maduro and the opposition had been meeting in Mexico City to discuss electoral conditions, but those talks have stalled. The main problem for Maduro is that he would likely lose a free and fair election. Perhaps for that reason, it's starting to look like he has no intention of holding one. For example, pro-Maduro lawmakers recently voted to overhaul the National Electoral Council, which will oversee next year's vote. Critics predict it will be packed with regime allies.


JORGE RODRIGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: And in a fiery speech, Jorge Rodriguez, who heads Venezuela's National Assembly, declared that electoral observers from the European Union would not be allowed into the country to monitor the presidential vote. The regime is also taking aim at Machado, the leading opposition candidate.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Last month, a government spokesman announced that Machado has been banned from holding public office for the next 15 years for alleged corruption. That was a typical regime ploy. To stay in power, it has often disqualified the strongest opposition candidates. Machado shrugged it off.


MACHADO: The regime action sparked an influx of national and international support and elevated my candidacy's popularity to unprecedented levels.

OTIS: She will carry on campaigning, but some opposition figures are worried and suggest putting together a list of alternative candidates in case Machado is forced out. Whoever it is, the opposition candidate will face very steep odds next year as Maduro tilts the electoral playing field in his favor. David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University, says that a sham election would bring harsh consequences.

DAVID SMILDE: But they don't want to lose power. And so if the cost of that is that they're going to have to continue on as sort of an international pariah, they're willing to pay that price.

OTIS: That price, he says, could include many more years of U.S. sanctions. For NPR News, I'm John Otis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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