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How Venezuela's opposition leader is getting around the government's ballot ban


Venezuela is preparing for a presidential election by cracking down on dissent. The opposition leader isn't even on the ballot, as John Otis reports.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Polls show that in a free election, Maria Corina Machado, a former right-wing congresswoman, would trounce President Nicolas Maduro. After 11 years in power, Maduro is deeply unpopular for leading Venezuela into its worst economic crisis in history.


MARIA CORINA MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Speaking in Caracas last week, Machado said there is no way they can beat us in an election. As a result, the Maduro regime is resorting to dirty tricks. Police have blocked roads to disrupt Machado's campaign events. Due to press censorship, she rarely appears on TV. Her closest collaborators are being jailed.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: That's a woman screaming for help as government agents last week captured Henry Alvarez, the national coordinator of Machado's political party. Seven other Machado allies have gone into hiding after warrants were issued for their arrest.


TAREK SAAB: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Speaking on state TV, Venezuela's attorney general Tarek Saab claimed they were planning to attack military bases and carry out assassinations, but he provided not a shred of evidence. Machado's biggest hurdle is getting on July's presidential ballot. That's because the Maduro regime has barred her from holding public office for 15 years due to what legal experts call bogus charges of corruption and other alleged wrongdoing. Machado could have responded by calling for an electoral boycott, as she has done in the past.


MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).


OTIS: Instead, she announced on Friday that Corina Yoris, a respected philosophy professor, would take her place as the opposition's main presidential candidate.


CORINA YORIS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a speech, Yoris thanked Machado and vowed to help Venezuelans recover their freedom and dignity. Polls show that most Venezuelans would back any unified opposition candidate in order to oust Maduro. Javier Corrales, a Venezuela expert at Amherst College, says it helps that Yoris is not a traditional politician. Indeed, she is an 80-year-old grandmother, a wholesome contrast to the mustachioed Maduro who jokes about his resemblance to Joseph Stalin.

JAVIER CORRALES: So in so many ways, it was a great choice. It's risky, it may still not work, but it's the best possible approach.

OTIS: But others are disappointed that Machado, Venezuela's most popular politician, pulled out of the race.

ERIC FARNSWORTH: It's a fundamental mistake that plays into the regime's own interests.

OTIS: That's Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas think tank. He says Maduro has no intention of giving up power.

FARNSWORTH: They're not going to get a different result even if you have a different candidate. The regime will not lose this election.

OTIS: Indeed, speculation is now growing that Maduro will devise a way to keep Corina Yoris, Machado's replacement, off the presidential ballot.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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