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A popular oppositional candidate in Venezuela has been banned from upcoming elections

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

To maintain its grip on power, Venezuela's authoritarian regime often bans opposition leaders from taking part in elections. In fact, the regime has already disqualified the most popular opposition candidate ahead of next year's presidential vote. But, as John Otis reports, electoral dirty tricks sometimes backfire.

SERGIO GARRIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: As he greets well-wishers here in the western Venezuelan state of Barinas, Governor Sergio Garrido admits that he's still getting used to the job.

GARRIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: When he was elected governor, Garrido says, "it surprised a lot of people because no one knew who I was."

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: Garrido got the job in a very roundabout way. Barinas is the home state of the late Hugo Chavez, who founded Venezuela's socialist revolution, which is now led by autocratic President Nicolas Maduro. In 2021, the Maduro regime cancelled the result of the gubernatorial election in Barinas because it couldn't stomach the fact that an opposition candidate had won in Chavez's backyard. The regime then called for a new election.

GARRIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But, as Garrido explains, the regime kept disqualifying the candidates the opposition placed on the ballot. Finally, like a fourth-string quarterback brought in to win the big game, the opposition asked Garrido to run. The regime allowed him on the ballot because he didn't seem like much of a threat. At the time, Garrido was an anonymous state representative.

GARRIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "It was a biblical fight," Garrido said, "like David versus Goliath." But in a shocking result, Garrido handily won the election to become one of just four opposition governors in Venezuela. Now some analysts say Garrido's path to victory in Barinas could provide a playbook for the opposition in next year's presidential election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

OTIS: Last month Maria Corina Machado, a former right-wing legislator, won the opposition's presidential primary. However, with polls predicting she would crush President Maduro in a free election, the regime has banned her from running. That will likely force the opposition to nominate an alternative candidate, says Phil Gunson, who's based in Caracas for the International Crisis Group.

PHIL GUNSON: A united opposition behind a single candidate would undoubtedly beat Maduro even if it's not Maria Corina Machado.

OTIS: But so far, Machado has given no indication she would stand down for an alternative candidate. Meanwhile, the U.S. government, which last month lifted sanctions on Venezuela's vital oil industry, has threatened to reimpose those sanctions if Machado is kept off the ballot.

JESUS URBINA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Jesus Urbina of the anti-corruption group Transparency International says Venezuelans are excited about Machado. She won the primary with more than 90% of the ballots, which is why, he says, a substitute candidate just won't wash.

URBINA: People don't accept these qualifications. OK? We talk about who is the best candidate to fight Maduro in an election.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But in the state of Barinas, the opposition is already in control, with Garrido overseeing road-building projects like this one. The lesson of his election victory here, he says, is that when taking on the Maduro regime, the opposition must be flexible.

GARRIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Voters don't care whether the opposition candidate is A, B or C," he says, "because whoever it is will represent the hope for change in this country." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Barinas, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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