A conservative firebrand is seeking to take Venezuela’s political opposition in a radically different tack as she works to end two decades of socialist rule.
María Corina Machado, a 55-year-old former lawmaker whose father’s steel company was seized by the late Hugo Chávez, has ridden a surge in popularity to lead a pack of candidates ahead of the Oct. 22 primary vote that will decide who gets to take on President Nicolás Maduro in next year’s elections. To get on the ballot, she needs to convince followers of a fractured coalition dominated by leftist parties that a right-winger who wants to privatize the oil industry is the best person to end the autocratic movement known as Chavismo and revive an economy battered by one of history’s worst recessions.
It’s a tough challenge, to say the least, but anti-Maduro forces clinging to hopes that international observers are able to oversee free and fair elections next year see the vote as the best opportunity to wrest back control of the country. A multi-year effort to depose the president and install the former head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, failed spectacularly despite the support of the US, UK and much of the global community.
“There is an opportunity to transform the country, to attract huge investments that translate into employment, education, innovation and into quality of life for Venezuelans,” Machado said. “For that to happen we need a 180-degree shift from what there is today, because we have understood that socialism equals ruin.”
It’s quite a turnaround for a politician who called for a complete boycott of the last presidential election in 2018, saying there was no point in participating in the rigged system that spurred the US and other countries to impose economic sanctions. Once critical of any concession to opponents, she now approaches potential allies across the political spectrum, looking to unite around their shared goal of ousting Maduro.
Machado’s efforts appear to be paying off as infighting among other leaders in the opposition intensifies. She was No. 1 among possible primary candidates with 25% support in a February poll from Datincorp, which also found her popularity had doubled over the past year. Other surveys show her similarly well positioned for the primary, and analysts say she stands a good chance of becoming Venezuela’s first female president if the country can mount a free and fair general election.
The opposition is ripe for new leadership following Guaidó’s disastrous gambit to win power, according to Félix Seijas, the head of Caracas-based pollster Delphos.
“The opposition as it existed is no longer, and that opens the door for her to capture support beyond her radical base,” Seijas said. “The ruling government is now the dominant adversary.”
In some respects, Machado is reintroducing herself to the Venezuelan public after half a decade out of the limelight. She had previously been one of the most prominent figures in the opposition when she led anti-government street protests. She is often remembered for interrupting a speech by Chávez to Congress in 2012 to criticize the damage he’d done to the Venezuelan economy.
“Águila no caza mosca,” Chávez responded in a video shared widely on social media, declining to engage. That phrase — roughly “eagles don’t chase flies” in English — became a rallying cry for Machado supporters in later years, especially for those who viewed the exchange as a powerful male politician dismissing a female counterpart as unworthy of debating. The regime took away her passport in 2014 amid allegations she’d tried to foment a coup against Maduro, an accusation frequently used against his critics.
Machado says she favors privatizing all industries in Venezuela, including oil, which many Venezuelans view as part of their heritage and see as rightfully belonging to the state. But she says rearranging the economy is the best bet for reversing years of decline — gross domestic product contracted 75% over the past 10 years as the national currency lost more than 90% of its value. Despite sitting atop the world’s largest crude reserves, oil production fell to about 660,000 barrels a day at the end of last year, far from the 2.9 million barrels a decade ago, according to data compiled by OPEC.