Venezuela court disqualifies opposition presidential hopeful

Henrique Capriles stood unsuccessfully in the 2013 election against Maduro, and before that against the late Hugo Chavez (Federico PARRA)
Henrique Capriles stood unsuccessfully in the 2013 election against Maduro, and before that against the late Hugo Chavez (Federico PARRA)

Venezuela's Supreme Court, loyal to President Nicolas Maduro's government, on Friday disqualified opposition leader Maria Corina Machado -- who handily won a 2023 primary vote -- from seeking election this year.

The court upheld a 15-year ban on Machado, 56, from holding public office, and also confirmed the ineligibility of a possible opposition stand-in -- two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

The United States and others have repeatedly called for the reinstatement of disqualified opposition candidates ahead of elections, for which a date has yet to be set.

Maduro's government and the opposition agreed in talks in Barbados last year to hold a free and fair vote in 2024 with international observers present.

That agreement saw the United States ease sanctions against Venezuela, allowing Chevron to resume limited oil extraction as part of an effort to keep down global prices as the West pressed sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine.

It also led to a prisoner swap.

But the Supreme Court said Friday Machado would remain disqualified "for being involved... in the corruption plot orchestrated by the usurper Juan Guaido."

Guaido, now in exile, was recognized by dozens of countries as the legitimate winner of elections in 2018 that saw Maduro inaugurated for a second successive term despite widespread fraud claims.

Maduro has not confirmed he will seek a third term, but is widely expected to do so.

In its ruling against Machado, the court said Guaido's "plot" had led to a "criminal blockade of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, as well as the shameless dispossession of the companies and wealth of the Venezuelan people abroad, with the complicity of corrupt governments."

Machado replied on X that: "Maduro and his criminal system chose the worst path for them: fraudulent elections. That's not going to happen. Let no one doubt it, this is to the end."

- Agreement 'mortally wounded' -

Machado is a fervent opponent of Chavism, the brand of populist leftist ideology left behind by former president Hugo Chavez and championed by Maduro.

She won overwhelming support in a primary vote last October that confirmed her as the opposition presidential candidate despite her disqualification by state institutions for alleged corruption -- a charge widely regarded as trumped-up -- and for backing sanctions against Caracas.

Capriles was also a candidate in the opposition-run primary vote, but stood aside in favor of Machado. He was seen as a possible replacement if she was prevented from running.

Political disqualifications of government opponents such as Machado and Capriles are imposed by a body called the office of the Comptroller General. The opposition has denounced it as an unconstitutional tool for the governing party to get rivals out of the way.

Maduro's reelection in 2018 was met with a barrage of sanctions.

After the Barbados agreement and under pressure from the United States, the Supreme Court created a mechanism for would-be candidates to challenge their disqualification.

Machado filed a challenge to her ineligibility under the mechanism but Capriles used a different avenue to appeal -- the reason given by the court Friday for upholding his ban.

"Today, more than ever, let nothing and no one remove us from the electoral route," Capriles wrote on X after the ruling.

"2024 has to be the year of the Venezuelan people."

Maduro on Thursday said the Barbados agreement was "mortally wounded" after government authorities claimed to have foiled numerous plots to assassinate him.