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In Venezuela election, Maria Corina Machado is an opposition force, though not on ballot

Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado has been expelled from the National Assembly and barred from Sunday's election. But she has rallied support for other opposition candidates, who may be primed to win a majority.

Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado has been expelled from the National Assembly and barred from Sunday’s election. But she has rallied support for other opposition candidates, who may be primed to win a majority.

(Federico Parra / AFP/Getty Images)

She’s been stripped of her Assembly seat, physically attacked on the floor of Congress by loyalists of late President Hugo Chavez and criticized by some of her allies in the opposition movement for being too confrontational.

But as Venezuelans prepare to vote in Sunday’s pivotal National Assembly elections, there is no politician more committed to challenging the government than Maria Corina Machado, who has gained respect even from detractors for her courage in the face of harassment and threats.

Pollsters say Venezuela’s opposition has the best chance in 16 years of winning a majority of seats in the 167-deputy National Assembly. Many polls show the opposition with a strong advantage in voter favorability over Chavista candidates.

Machado, who is barred by the government from running in this election, has played a prominent role in rallying support for opposition candidates in appearances across the country.

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Despite being accused of wrongdoing by the government of President Nicolas Maduro, the 48-year-old daughter of a wealthy industrialist has not tempered her outspoken criticism of his government or his management of a country in crisis.

Machado, who led massive street protests against the Maduro government in 2014, has been accused by the government of violations that she insists are unfounded, including plotting to kill Maduro.

“This is a military and mafioso dictatorship that has stolen dollars, gold and oil,” Machado said in an interview Thursday at the Caracas headquarters of her movement, called Come On, Venezuela. “They are not going to rob votes so that they can keep on stealing.”

A heavy voter turnout is expected as the number of Venezuelans disgusted with the government reaches new highs, with scarcities of basic food items, medicines and household goods becoming more acute. The country has suffered the highest inflation rate in the world for three years running. Poverty has risen to levels higher than when Chavez took office in 1999, despite the many welfare programs he implemented.

These conditions have made even some devoted Chavistas question the leadership of Maduro, a former bus driver who was Chavez’s handpicked successor before his death in March 2013.

“There are only two outcomes: an enormous victory for the opposition or monumental fraud,” Machado said during the interview Thursday.

Machado’s views, such as her belief that Maduro should resign, are not shared by all opposition politicians. Some think that economic and social chaos will worsen next year and that Maduro should suffer the political consequences. The opposition’s better opportunity is to wait for the 2019 presidential election, they say.

“This regime has to go, for the good of Venezuela and all Venezuelans. We all want a peaceful transition in the framework of the constitution,” Machado said.

Some say that by crisscrossing the country in recent weeks, Machado is laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign in four years. She sought the nomination from an opposition alliance of parties in 2012 but fell short, losing to Henrique Capriles, who then narrowly lost to Chavez.

Though Chavez criticized her for being a bourgeois and a traitor for going against his socialist reengineering of Venezuela, her admirers tout her grasp of issues, oratory, ability to attract a crowd and, above all, her guts.

“She is a very well-prepared woman, direct, and a leader who is not ambiguous,” said political consultant and pollster Alfredo Keller. “That she is a woman in a macho society is thought by some to be a defect.”

Machado was elected deputy in the National Assembly for the state of Miranda by the largest margin of votes of any candidate in the last legislative elections in 2010.

She proved to be a thorn in the side of Chavez, even calling him a thief during one of his appearances before Congress.

In April 2013, she was attacked in Congress, leaving her with five broken facial bones, while Assembly President Diosdado Cabello looked on.

In 2014, Cabello expelled her from the Assembly on charges she violated the constitution by making an unauthorized appearance before an Organization of American States meeting in Washington. She says her appearance there to blame Maduro for dozens of protesters’ deaths during the unrest in February 2014 was legitimate.

The state prosecutor’s office indicted her last December on charges that she took part in an alleged plot to kill Maduro. She has vigorously denied the accusations.

Maduro’s government in July disqualified her as a candidate in Sunday’s election for allegedly not reporting a food voucher that she says she never used.

Machado is loathed by many government supporters, who say she signed a decree that dissolved state institutions under a de facto government that ruled for less than two days in a botched 2002 coup against Chavez. She denies having signed it.

“The regime knows what’s in play,” Machado said of Sunday’s vote, which she described as a referendum against growing hunger and out-of-control violence.

“This is urgent because every day that passes is measured in human lives,” Machado said. “There is a national clamor for [change] and it is impossible to stop.”

Mogollon is a special correspondent.


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