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LATIN AMERICA | 14-03-2024 15:05

'Stronger than ever,' Venezuelan opposition candidate María Corina Machado refuses to yield

María Corina Machado continues to campaign, despite significant challenges, to rally support for her presidential bid, emphasising resilience and determination against the regime's obstacles.

Venezuelan opposition leader María Corina Machado is pushing forward on the presidential campaign trail, traversing the country to energize supporters despite having little chance of overcoming the hurdles the state has placed in her way. 

Polls show that Machado, who won an opposition primary with 92 percent of votes cast last October, would likely beat incumbent Nicolás Maduro in elections set for July 28.

But she has been disqualified by Maduro-aligned institutions from holding public office, accused of corruption -- a charge she dismisses as fabricated -- and of supporting sanctions against the Maduro government.

Machado, 56, has dug in her heels.

"We are at a crucial moment, the regime intends to make us feel disoriented and defeated when we are stronger than ever," she told a crowd Wednesday in the industrial city of Mariara, amid chants of "freedom, freedom, freedom!"

Machado did not once mention her 15-year public office disqualification, upheld in January by the Maduro-aligned Supreme Court.

Presidential hopefuls can register their candidacies from March 21 to 25. Maduro has already been nominated by the ruling PSUV party, which is to make an official announcement Friday.

Nobody is quite sure what Machado will do.

Analysts say that unless her disqualification is somehow overturned, the opposition coalition may have to pick a substitute candidate -- among those not yet barred on similar allegations.

The opposition could also call for an election boycott as it had in 2018, when Maduro won a second, successive term in elections widely rejected as fraudulent and met with Western sanctions.

- 'Our María Corina' -

"We are going to the end," Machado insisted on Wednesday, without laying out her strategy.

"The end is not only the eviction of a brutal, cruel, corrupt, bad tyranny, but the construction of a Venezuela of respect, of freedom," she told supporters.

For once, Machado was not stopped en route by the National Guard, a military branch which performs public order duties and has kept close tabs on her campaign.

And she received a warm welcome in Mariara, a former industrial hub that had long supported Maduro and his still popular predecessor Hugo Chávez, after whom the ruling "Chavismo" movement is named. 

In recent years, however, support for Chavismo has wavered as Venezuela has confronted Western sanctions and a severe economic crisis that has seen seven million people flee the country as GDP plummeted by 80 percent in a decade.

"If we lose the elections it will be because of cheating," technician Gleisimar Tovar, 36, told AFP at the rally.

"Mariara used to be 'Chavista' territory but has woken up. We have no electricity, no water... we want a change."

Residents rushed from weathered homes and rickety shops to greet Machado, waving flags and chanting.

"We are not afraid!" shouted one man from the crowd.

Merchant Ricky Benitez, 41, said his income has plummeted due to the economic crisis and that "people are living on handouts."

"We must vote, give our vote to our María Corina," said Benitez.

And if she doesn't even make it to the starting line? 

"We must support the candidate she chooses," he said.

Machado assured the crowd that the opposition coalition was "unstoppable."

"I trust in you, I put my life in your hands," she said to applause. "Let's move forward. They will not stop us."

by Margioni Bermúdez, AFP

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