In 2006, there was Manuel Rosales. In 2012, there was Henrique Capriles. In 2018, there was Juan Guaidó. All managed to capture the hopes of Venezuela’s opposition, but as hopes slipped away, so did their popularity.
Now, there is a new opposition leader in town: Maria Corina Machado, an ideologically driven fighter and a woman who was not afraid to call former president Hugo Chávez a “thief” to his face. As Venezuelans often imprudently say, she “tiene las bolas bien puestas,” meaning that, although female, she “has her testicles in the right place.” That’s something that millions of Venezuelans can’t say about the charming yet gutless men who have monopolized the country’s hopes in the past.
In July, Dr. Félix Seijas of the Andrés Bello Catholic University presented the results of the National Conjuncture Study, which indicated that Machado, who served as a deputy in the country’s National Assembly from 2011 to 2014, is the leading opposition presidential candidate looking at the upcoming and controversial 2024 elections. The opposition coalition is set to formally select its candidate Sunday, who will then take on President Nicolás Maduro.
In the study, which surveyed 1,200 individuals over eighteen years old from across the country, Machado was shown to have a significant lead, with 33 percent of respondents naming her as their preferred candidate. Capriles, who was previously beaten by both Chávez and his predecessor, was chosen by 6 percent. Benjamín Rausseo, well known in Venezuela for his stand-up comedy as El Conde del Guácharo, scored 4 percent, as did Rosales. Guaidó, the ex-superstar, came in with a mere 1 percent. That’s a big change from November 2022, when Guaidó was in the lead with numbers close to eight times higher than he currently has, while Machado’s numbers were five times lower.
Unsurprisingly, the survey shows that an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans (85 percent) believe that a political change in Venezuela is necessary. It also indicated that 67 percent planned to vote on October 22 to choose the opposition’s unitary candidate.
Still, disillusion and pessimism characterize public opinion, as Maduro takes steps to ensure that Venezuelan elections remain nothing but a facade. The most shameless was the creation of a new and small electoral tribunal, led by the president’s wife and tasked with the selection of the members of the National Electoral Council (CNE). Additionally, the Maduro regime has barred Machado from holding public office for the next fifteen years, something that was done to the second favorite candidate six years ago.
Maduro has successfully overtaken the key institutions which are essential in guaranteeing free and fair elections. While some see Machado’s emergence as another futile exercise in democracy role-play, others find newfound hope in the changing face of Venezuela’s opposition. According to the NCS survey, Machado’s classical liberal party, Vente Venezuela, has 30 percent of respondents’ support, followed by the catch-all electoral coalition MUD, Capriles’s Primero Justicia and Maduro’s PSUV.
Machado’s party is also the first of its kind in a country where most opposition to Maduro’s PSUV has come from the center-left.
The Milton Friedman-admiring candidate is not shy about her enthusiasm for free markets — to such an extent that El País calls her the Venezuelan Margaret Thatcher. Raised Catholic like most Venezuelans, Machado and her grassroot activists are as religiously devoted to Friedrich Hayek as the average Venezuelan mother is to the Virgin Mary.
She has expressed support for gay marriage, medicinal marijuana and abortion under some circumstances — although these positions are not ones that she spends time defending in public. Economically speaking, her party’s platform is diametrically opposed to Maduro’s. She has called for privatizing PDVSA, the country’s state-owned oil and natural gas company, an idea with which established politicians have refused to flirt since the oil industry was nationalized in 1976.
For millions of Venezuelans, that is exactly what they want: drastic change. Well-educated traditional opposition leaders see in Machado a strong yet out-of-touch candidate. Venezuelans, though, seem fed up with Chavismo-light — and Machado has intelligently tapped into the sentiment, providing a stark political, as well as moral, alternative.
Those who found her unsophisticated, divisive and extreme have been left with no choice. Last Friday, Leopoldo Lopez, the former presidential candidate, political prisoner and national coordinator for the Popular Will Party, threw his support behind Machado, as Freddy Superlano, his party’s candidate, suspended his campaign. A week before that, Capriles, the two-times candidate and second favorite, abandoned his race for the presidency, too.
Machado is not just nationally popular now — after years of friction with the opposition, she has become their face. Like her or not, she seems to be here to stay.