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Venezuela's Maduro makes his candidacy official while a would-be rival struggles to register

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — It’s a tale of two dramatically different political campaigns.

On Monday, throngs of supporters of President Nicolás Maduro rallied at a giant stage draped in the red, yellow and blue colors of Venezuela's flag outside the electoral council headquarters where he made official his candidacy for a third term that would last until 2031. Meanwhile, his would-be rivals tried to register their candidate, an 80-year-old unknown newcomer, before a looming deadline but found they were unable to do so — in what the opposition denounced as the latest attack on Venezuela’s democracy.

Polls show the unpopular Maduro would be trounced by a landslide if Venezuelan voters were given half a chance.

But the self-proclaimed socialist leader has so far managed to block his chief opponents from running while alternately negotiating and then reneging on minimal electoral guarantees promised to the U.S. government in exchange for relief from oil sanctions

In a creative attempt to force Maduro’s authoritarian hand, two smaller opposition parties previously authorized to participate in July's tightly managed election nominated former academic Corina Yoris last week.

The protest candidacy took friends and foes alike by surprise. An academic, who has taught logic and philosophy at several Venezuelan universities, she’s barely known even in opposition circles. Her only public political role until now was as a member of the committee that organized last year’s opposition primary in which 2.4 million voters in Venezuela and abroad defied government threats of criminal prosecution to select a candidate to run against Maduro.

But her relative anonymity, squeaky clean record and affectionate grandmotherly air have fast become part of her appeal. Even her name — Corina — is viewed as an asset, a not so subtle reminder of her namesake ally, Maria Corina Machado, whose candidacy was outlawed by the Maduro-stacked Supreme Court after she won last October’s primary by an overwhelming majority.

“We've exhausted all of the possibilities," Yoris said at a news conference in which she detailed her failed attempts to register, both electronically and in person, her candidacy. “It's not just the name of Corina Yoris that is being denied but the name of any citizen that wants to run.”

In registering his own candidacy, Maduro, without mentioning Yoris by name, blasted his would-be rival as a “puppet” of traditional elites.

He cast his own reelection bid in historic terms, saying it was the continuation of the Bolivarian revolution launched a quarter century ago by the late Hugo Chavez and the only way to protect Venezuela's sovereignty amid attempts by the U.S. “empire” to dig its “claws” into the OPEC nation's oil wealth.

“I can only say, with humility, that I am made of the same muddy earth as you,” he said in the televised address at the National Electoral Council.

To date, 10 candidates have registered to compete in the July elections, none of them connected to the main opposition coalition and several seen as representing little threat to Maduro's power base. Once parties register their candidate, they have until April 16 to name a substitute.

Maduro’s supporters have wasted little time in targeting Yoris ever since she was tapped to lead the opposition's electoral fight.

Over the weekend, several members of the ruling Socialist Party took to social media to claim Yoris was a citizen of Uruguay, making her ineligible to run due to a requirement in Venezuela's constitution that the president be a natural-born citizen without dual nationality.

On Monday, Yoris dismissed such talk as a desperate ploy to disqualify her candidacy.

“I was born in Caracas, my parents were born in Venezuela, and I've never opted for any other nationality,” she said.

Venezuela's election is taking place against the backdrop of a swelling crackdown on dissent aimed at ensuring Maduro remains in power. In addition to blocking Machado's candidacy, it last week issued arrest orders against several of her aides. Earlier this year it also jailed a prominent human rights attorney and then shuttered the United Nations human rights office for criticizing the arrest, giving its international staff 72 hours to leave the country.

But rather than boycott the vote, as it did when Maduro was reelected to a second six-year term in 2018, the opposition is seeking to call Maduro's bluff and force him to outright steal the vote.

The strategy appears to have the full support of the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, which has so far been in no rush to reimpose oil sanctions eased last year in response to an agreement on electoral guarantees struck in Barbados by Maduro and the opposition.

While some of the pledges have been partially fulfilled, others, such as the right of each political movement to freely select their candidates, have been all but ignored, calling into question the wisdom of a hands-off approach that so far has only emboldened Maduro.

“Maduro and his criminal enablers could learn something about patriotism, sacrifice, and love of country from the Venezuelan opposition,” Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois and the majority whip, said in a message posted on X over the weekend. “Their candidates must be allowed to register by Monday or sanctions relief must be halted.”

Geoff Ramsey, a senior analyst on Venezuela at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said the Biden administration is in a difficult position of trying to retain some leverage with Maduro while quieting skeptics who think it is being too lenient with Caracas.

“The U.S. will almost certainly have to snap back some sanctions, but there are ways to do so while still keeping the regime at the table," he said. “But if Machado and the wider opposition aren’t even able to register a candidate, the president’s hands will be tied.”

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Goodman reported from Miami.

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