Home News Meet the candidates challenging Venezuela’s authoritarian president

Meet the candidates challenging Venezuela’s authoritarian president


Edmundo González was plucked from obscurity and chosen to challenge South America’s longest-serving authoritarian leader. That day, technicians were busy making sure his home wasn’t bugged.

“This was not in our plans,” his wife, Mercedes López de González, said in an interview on an April day in her apartment in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

Not long ago, Mr. Gonzalez, 74, was a retired diplomat and grandfather of four with no political ambitions. He keeps busy writing academic papers, speaking at conferences, taking his grandson for haircuts and taking music lessons. In his native Venezuela, few people know his name.

Now, many Venezuelans are banking on him ending years of repressive rule as he challenges President Nicolás Maduro, who has been in power since 2013, in elections scheduled for the end of July.

Mr. Gonzalez was suddenly back at work full-time.

“I have to wipe my phone twice a day,” he said in a brief interview. “I deleted almost 150 messages. I went to bed at 1 a.m. and by 4 a.m. I was back on my feet and back to work. I never imagined this.”

After years of electoral fraud and political persecution, the Venezuelan people, longing for a return to democracy, have learned to expect disappointment.

The opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable has been trying to unite support for a candidate who could pose a credible challenge to Mr Maduro, but his government has erected a series of obstacles.

Ultimately, Mr. González emerged as a candidate that the government would not try to block and that the opposition would support.

He accepted the role, but friends and colleagues said he was never ready for it.

“Edmundo never had any political ambitions,” said Phil Gunson, a Venezuela expert at the International Crisis Group in Caracas and a friend of Mr. Gonzalez. “He’s a man doing what he believes is his duty.”

Some experts say Gonzalez’s low profile could make it difficult for him to win over voters, especially outside Caracas, where information coming from government-controlled media is unlikely to be critical of his campaign. Too much coverage.

Unlike other opposition leaders, Mr Gonzalez has also not publicly criticized Maduro’s government and its human rights record, raising concerns among some analysts who say holding officials accountable for abuses is essential to restoring the rule of law in the country Crucial.

Gonzalez declined to speak in detail about the election at home the day he went to vote.

Mr. Gonzalez, the youngest of three siblings, was born into a wealthy family in La Victoria, a small city about 50 miles west of Caracas. The candidate’s daughter, Carolina González, said his mother, a teacher, and his father, a shopkeeper, discouraged him from his childhood dream of becoming a diplomat. “A career for the rich”.

Undeterred, he went on to study international relations at the Universidad Central de Venezuela.

In college, he was a diligent student, recalled his classmate and old friend Imelda Cisneros. It was a politically tumultuous time, with far-left communist ideology becoming popular on campus, and the atmosphere was tense.

But Mr. Gonzalez became a student leader “in a very calm and conciliatory way,” she said.

“He wanted to be a diplomat,” Ms. Cisneros added. “He was very clear about his goals from the beginning.”

Shortly after graduating in 1970, he joined the Foreign Service and served in Belgium, El Salvador and the United States, where he earned a master’s degree in international affairs from the American University in Washington.

He was later appointed ambassador to Algeria and then to Argentina, where he was appointed in 1999 after Hugo Chávez was elected president. Mr. Chávez will continue to consolidate power under the banner of socialist revolution.

Mr. Gonzalez returned to Venezuela in 2002 and soon retired from diplomatic service.

In 2008, he actively participated in an opposition alliance called the Democratic Solidarity Roundtable, providing advice on international relations issues behind the scenes.

said Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, the alliance’s former executive secretary who became president of the alliance’s board of directors in 2021.

But most people, even within Venezuelan political circles, didn’t know he held the post until after he announced his candidacy for president, as opposition leaders often face persecution.

That makes it a dangerous decision for Mr. Gonzalez to step into the spotlight to oppose an incumbent president bent on retaining power.

“I’m nervous because we don’t know if something will happen to us,” Ms. Lopez de Gonzalez said.

People who know Gonzalez say he would not take launching a presidential campaign lightly.

“He was a man of great balance, calm, serious and above all sober,” said Ramón José Medina. He served as chairman of the Democratic Unity Roundtable until 2014 and has been a friend of Mr. Gonzalez for decades.

Mr Maduro signed an agreement with the opposition in October to take steps to achieve free and fair elections, and the United States temporarily lifted some crippling economic sanctions as a show of goodwill.

Days later, former national lawmaker María Corina Machado won the primary with more than 90% of the vote, making her a major threat to Maduro in a head-to-head showdown.

Since then, Maduro’s government has erected obstacles to prevent a serious challenger from getting on the ballot.

1. The Supreme Court of the State disqualified Ms. Machado was indicted in January over financial irregularities that a judge claimed occurred while she was a state lawmaker, a common tactic used to keep viable rivals off the ballot.

Last month, the government used technical electoral techniques to prevent an opposition coalition from putting forward another preferred candidate ahead of a registration deadline.

Only one politician, Manuel Rosales, was allowed to register, and political analysts believe he had Maduro’s approval. In the short term, efforts to find a unifying candidate appear to have failed.

But in a surprise move, the coalition announced that national electoral authorities had granted an extension, paving the way for Mr González to formally enter the race. Mr. Rosales stepped aside in support of Mr. Gonzalez.

Gunson said Gonzalez’s career as a “consensus seeker” helped him unite the opposition.

“He’s a guy who can be embraced by a lot of different people,” he added. “And he didn’t offend anyone.”

Those qualities may also make Maduro’s government more likely to cede power to him if he wins, said Tamara Talachuk Broner, a Venezuela expert at the Washington-based research group Inter-American Dialogue.

Experts say Maduro may be willing to admit defeat if he is granted amnesty for human rights abuses and his party retains a role in the country’s political system.

In this regard, Mr. Gonzalez is more moderate than the other candidates. Ms Machado said Mr Maduro and members of his government should be held criminally responsible for corruption and human rights abuses.

Mr. Gonzalez has said in the interview He is willing to engage in dialogue with the Maduro government to ensure a smooth transfer of power.

“His main challenge is to maintain a balance between getting the opposition to support a unity candidate and ensuring that his candidate does not pose an intolerable threat to the regime,” Ms Talachuk Broner said. “It’s a very fine line.”

a public opinion poll He has been shown to have defeated Mr Maduro, but the survey also showed that about a third of respondents said they were unsure who they would vote for and about 20% said they would not vote for anyone in the race. candidate.

Aviledo said he hoped Gonzalez could win over Venezuelans in the coming weeks.

“Finally, someone who can speak calmly, gently, think about problems and solutions, speak without shouting, without insulting,” he said. “Because this country is tired of conflict.”

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