March 3rd, 2024

US government pulls some of Venezuela’s sanctions relief after court blocks opposition candidate

By Regina Garcia Cano, The Associated Press on January 29, 2024.

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – The U.S. government on Monday pulled back part of the sanctions relief it granted Venezuela last year, following through on its threat after the South American country’s highest court blocked the presidential candidacy of an opposition leader.

The Department of the Treasury gave companies transacting with Venezuela’s state-owned mining company until Feb. 13 to wind down operations. The department had allowed transactions with the mining company in October after the government of President Nicolás Maduro reached an agreement with the U.S.-backed opposition faction to work toward leveling the playing field ahead of the presidential election.

On Friday, however, the prospect of a free presidential election was dealt a heavy blow when the country’s highest court upheld a ban on the candidacy of María Corina Machado, a longtime government foe and winner of the primary held by the opposition.

Machado, a former lawmaker, won the opposition’s independently run presidential primary with more than 90% of the votes. Her victory came despite the government announcing a 15-year ban on her running for office just days after she formally entered the race in June.

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Venezuelan opposition leader María Corina Machado on Monday called the court ruling blocking her presidential candidacy last week “judicial criminality” and vowed to stay in the race, declaring that the decision embodies the ruling party’s fear of having to face her at the polls.

Machado, surrounded by supporters and other opposition leaders, told reporters she expects government repression to increase against her and her team, because it is “the only tool they have left” to stop adversaries. But, she said, “the best option” for President Nicolás Maduro and his allies is “to negotiate with us a peaceful transition.”

“It cannot be called a sentence. It is not even an arbitrary decision. This is called judicial criminality,” Machado said of Friday’s ruling by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. “If they believe that they declared my disqualification, then let them know well, they declared the end of this tyranny … because people are clear and are not going to allow themselves to be stripped of their Oct. 22 decision.”

The former lawmaker won a presidential primary in October by the faction of the opposition backed by the United States. She secured more than 90% of the vote despite the government announcing a 15-year ban on her running for office days after she formally entered the race.

The longtime government foe was able to participate, because the primary was organized by a commission independent of Venezuela’s electoral authorities. Machado insisted throughout the campaign that she never received official notification of the ban.

In December, Machado filed a claim with the tribunal, Venezuela’s highest court, arguing the ban was null and void and seeking an injunction to protect her political rights. Instead, the court on Friday upheld the ban, which alleges fraud and tax violations and accuses her of seeking the economic sanctions the U.S. imposed on Venezuela in the last decade.

On Monday, she sought to reassure supporters, telling them that her campaign is “stronger than ever” and she will represent them during the presidential election. But she wouldn’t explain the steps she plans to take to be allowed to participate in the contest for which a definitive date is yet to be set.

Friday’s ruling came more than three months after Maduro and the U.S.-backed opposition, known as the Unitary Platform, reached a deal to work on basic conditions for a fair election. They agreed to hold the election in the second half of 2024, invite international electoral observers and create a process for aspiring presidential candidates to appeal their bans.

Maduro earned some sanctions relief from the U.S. as a result of the agreement, but it threatened to claw back the decision if Maduro breached the agreement signed in October on the Caribbean island of Barbados.

“We certainly have options with respect to sanctions and that kind of thing that that we could take. They’ve got till April,” White House National Security spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday, referring to the expiration date set in October for some of the relief.

“They need to make the right decisions here and allow opposition members to run for office and release the political prisoners that they’re holding right now.”

The Organization of American States and about 30 political leaders from Spain and Latin America have also condemned the court’s decision.

The court and the National Electoral Council, the country’s electoral body, are stacked with people affiliated with the ruling party. The head of the electoral council is now Elvis Amoroso, who signed Machado’s administrative ban last year.

Ruling-party loyalists also include Attorney General Tarek William Saab, who after the primary election opened criminal investigations against some of its organizers and later issued arrest warrants for three of Machado’s campaign staffers. In addition, a longtime collaborator of Machado, Roberto Abdul, with whom she co-founded a pro-democracy group more than two decades ago, was detained after the primary.

A high-profile prisoner swap between the U.S. and Venezuela led to Abdul’s release and allowed the three staffers to leave the foreign embassy where they sought refuge. But three other staffers were detained last week, and on Monday, Machado said that their whereabouts remain unknown.

Since the ruling was made public, the chief negotiators for the Unitary Platform, Gerardo Blyde, and the government, Jorge Rodríguez, have expressed their commitment to continue the negotiation process. But while Blyde on Saturday said the government has broken the terms of the Barbados agreement and it must reverse the ruling, Rodríguez on Monday insisted that his side has followed the accord, and the court’s decision “is a thing of the past.”

Rodríguez also warned the U.S. government to not “interfere” with Venezuela’s internal affairs.

“We will pay close attention to the actions they take in the coming days that may be considered aggressive toward the right of this country to live in peace, to progress and to have all unilateral cohesive measures, called sanctions, lifted,” he said. “Should there be an aggressive action, our response will be calm, reciprocal and energetic.”

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Zeke Miller contributed to this report from Washington.

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