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Venezuelan opposition is showing new life after naming a candidate to take on Maduro


Venezuela's presidential election was shaping up to be a sham. The country's leader, Nicolas Maduro has used authoritarian maneuvers to seize the advantage ahead of the July 28 vote. But now the Venezuelan opposition is showing new life after naming a new candidate. Reporter John Otis has more.


MARIA CORINA MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Opposition leader Maria Corina Machado is barnstorming across Venezuela. She's trying to drum up enough votes to oust President Nicolas Maduro after 11 years in power. But Machado is not beseeching Venezuelans to vote for her.


MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Instead, she's asking them to vote for Edmundo Gonzalez. He's a retired ambassador who hardly anyone in Venezuela has ever heard of. It's the latest twist in a game of electoral musical chairs.


MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Machado is Venezuela's most popular opposition figure, and Pol show she would thrash Maduro in a free election. As a result, the Maduro regime, which has also jailed dissidents and censored the press, has banned her from running for president. In response, Machado named a replacement candidate, who was also disqualified. Finally, the opposition settled on another substitute, Edmundo Gonzalez, and to the surprise of many, the Maduro regime has allowed Gonzalez on the ballot.


EDMUNDO GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I humbly accept this responsibility," Gonzalez said. Then he added, "it was unexpected."

Indeed, Gonzalez had been a career diplomat. He served as Venezuela's ambassador to Algeria and Argentina but quit in 2002 to work for the opposition. Now a 74-year-old grandfather, he's not expected to do much campaigning, says Phil Gunson of the International Crisis Group.

PHIL GUNSON: He has no experience standing for elected office. He's not the kind of guy who you can expect can get up on the hustings and make a rousing speech.

OTIS: Still, he says Gonzalez poses a real threat to Maduro because he could get millions of votes that would have gone to the disqualified Maria Corina Machado.

GUNSON: The polls do suggest that a candidate backed by Maria Corina, as Edmundo Gonzalez is, would still beat Maduro quite handily.

OTIS: It's a mystery why the regime is allowing Gonzalez on the ballot. It may be that Maduro wants the election to appear at least partially free and fair. That could help him legitimize his rule and convince the U.S. to lift recently reimposed sanctions against Venezuela's oil industry. Michael Penfold, a Caracas-based analyst, says Maduro's political movement, known as Chavismo, views Gonzalez as more moderate than the right-wing Machado.

MICHAEL PENFOLD: I think Chavismo would have liked to go to an election with someone that they could accept losing against.

OTIS: Yet it remains a long shot that Maduro would acknowledge losing or agree to leave office because that could mean jail. Maduro faces U.S. indictments for drug trafficking, while his regime is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Penfold points out that there's still time for the Maduro regime to rig the election, kick Gonzalez off the ballot or even arrest him.

PENFOLD: We can have a reversal of what we're currently living, which looks like an important electoral opening. All of this is very fragile.



OTIS: At a recent summit, Maduro assured his left-wing allies from around Latin America that he's not going anywhere. But at least for now, the opposition seems to have the momentum.


MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: As she stumped in Central Venezuela last week for Gonzalez, her stand-in candidate, Machado declared, we are going to win.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis.

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