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To foster a free election in Venezuela, the U.S. is offering the Maduro regime a deal

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In Venezuela, Maria Corina Machado easily won the opposition's presidential primary on Sunday. That should set her off for a face-off against Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's autocratic leader, in next year's presidential election. However, the Maduro regime has disqualified Machado from running. Now, in an effort to promote a free election, the U.S. government is offering Maduro a deal. Reporter John Otis explains.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Maria Corina Machado, a former right-wing legislator, overwhelmed nine other candidates in Sunday's opposition primary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIA CORINA MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a speech, she called her triumph the beginning of the end of Maduro's presidency and vowed to crush him in next year's election. The Maduro regime insists Machado cannot run for president. That's because, in June, she was barred from holding public office for 15 years, even though there was no legal basis for that decision. Yet Machado's fortunes have been bolstered by her landslide primary win and by a push from Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We will now proceed with the signing of the two partial agreements.

OTIS: The first breakthrough came last week at this ceremony in Barbados, where envoys for Maduro and Venezuela's opposition laid out new ground rules to make next year's election at least partially free and fair. The deal includes a process for lifting the bans on presidential candidates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you. Muchas gracias.

(APPLAUSE)

OTIS: The day after the agreement was signed, the Biden administration lifted for six months most of the sanctions put in place in 2019 against Venezuela's vital oil industry. Those sanctions magnified what was already Venezuela's worst economic crisis in history. Under the sanctions, Venezuela had to sell its oil on the black market at steep discounts. But now it can once again export oil to the U.S. at market prices, says Francisco Monaldi, an energy analyst at Rice University in Houston.

FRANCISCO MONALDI: That's what made it irresistible, I think, for Maduro to accept this deal. He's going to benefit starting tomorrow.

OTIS: Monaldi says the deal could nearly double Venezuela's oil income over the next year. Maduro, who has dismal job approval ratings, badly needs that cash to jumpstart the economy as he seeks re-election, says Phil Gunson, who's based in Caracas for the International Crisis Group.

PHIL GUNSON: Maduro has the problem that the economy of Venezuela is in very bad shape, so he needs to produce a fairly rapid turnaround.

OTIS: But the regime is already backing off from the Democratic commitments it made in Barbados.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JORGE RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a speech, Jorge Rodriguez, Maduro's envoy to the Barbados talks, insisted that there is no agreement to lift the bans on presidential candidates.

Such hedging by the regime is why the easing of U.S. sanctions is temporary and why oil sanctions could quickly be reimposed. So says Juan Gonzalez, a top Biden administration envoy for Latin America, speaking here with Americas Quarterly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUAN GONZALEZ: After November, if they've not followed through, we're going to take steps to reverse what is happening.

OTIS: In the end, Maduro may prefer sanctions to facing the highly popular Machado at the ballot box. Gunson points out that if Maduro loses and leaves office, he and other regime figures could face prosecution for human rights abuses and drug trafficking.

GUNSON: Maduro and the people around him have given no indication that they have at any point contemplated giving up power. They don't intend to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But in the wake of her primary win on Sunday, an upbeat Machado insisted that she will be on next year's presidential ballot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: She said, "we are going to overcome all of these obstacles."

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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