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Maduro’s immigration card could influence America’s election, not just Venezuela’s

Analysis by Rafael Romo, CNN

(CNN) — Venezuelan voters are supposed to go to the polls to choose a president this year, but they don’t know when the election will be held … or even if it will be held.

Voters don’t know who the candidates will be either, other than the incumbent, socialist President Nicolás Maduro, who has made it abundantly clear he wants to stay in power for a third consecutive term.

In many respects, this election year is beginning to look as chaotic as 2018, when the ruling Socialist United Party of Venezuela (PSUV) pulled the event forward from the traditional month of December to April of that year, then changed it again, to May.

But the difference to 2018 is that what happens in the South American country’s presidential election this year may have an impact on another presidential election happening thousands of miles away.

Less than four months ago, Venezuela made an agreement with the United States to hold free and fair elections – a move aimed at thawing relations between the two countries. The agreement was crucial for US President Joe Biden because Venezuelan cooperation is needed to help control illegal immigration, which is shaping up as a key issue in the 2024 US election.

The problem for Biden is, that deal now seems irreparably broken.

Holding on to power

Maduro, the 61-year-old former bus driver who was appointed to the presidency by Hugo Chávez to succeed him when the late strongman realized he was terminally ill, has been in power since 2013 – and appears in no mood to give it up.

In public, Maduro has insisted elections will be held this year.

“Rain, thunder or lightning, this year we are going to election number 31. There will be presidential elections in Venezuela,” he told his PSUV supporters at a rally recently. “And I know it, I see it, once again, rain, thunder or lightning… the people will triumph again, the Bolivarian people, the Chavista people! Let’s get united,” Maduro said.

But his regime seems to be doing everything possible to delay the election and disqualify the opposition by using the long and powerful arm of the state it absolutely controls.

Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice (the highest court in the land, stacked with government loyalists) recently barred María Corina Machado, the main opposition candidate, from running for president. The court’s decision, based on alleged financial irregularities when Machado was a member of the National Assembly, also bars her from running for any office in Venezuela for 15 years.

In an interview with CNN, Machado denied the accusations and said she and her campaign have been targeted for years.

Her party, “Vente Venezuela,” said recently that three of its campaign directors had been detained by the government. Machado says the regime has barred Venezuelan media from interviewing her or reporting about her.

She also says government loyalists have not only intimidated campaign workers, but also gone after people who provide them with any services, including owners of audio equipment for rallies and car rental companies, hotel operators and even commercial airlines.

“Since they know they don’t have any votes, they stay in power through guns, judicial rulings and persecution. That’s all Maduro has left. Maduro is a repressive candidate, and he wants to do this by force and blows. [They’re playing] a dirty game,” Machado said, vowing to stay in the race. “The threats against us are brutal. These fellows have no qualms, but they will not derail our plans,” Machado said.

Maduro has defended the court’s ruling against Machado, suggesting it went against US pressure and showed that nobody is “above the law.”

“Despite the threats and blackmail of the US empire, Venezuela’s institutions have worked,” he said when welcoming the ruling on January 29 in Caracas.

The opposition has seen this movie before. Leopoldo López, who challenged Maduro’s power during the last decade, was arrested in 2014 following weeks of social unrest and sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison the following year on charges of inciting anti-government protests. He spent five years behind bars and several months under house arrest before fleeing to Madrid, Spain, in 2020.

Brian Winter, the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly magazine, says if there’s a presidential election this year in Venezuela, “there’s almost zero chance” that it would be free or fair.

“Maduro is looking to conduct an election that appears just fair enough to improve his international image without risking his greatest nightmare, which would be to lose power. That’s why he’s wavering on the date and trying to bend the opposition’s main candidate,” Winter said.

Collision course with Biden

By banning Machado from running for office, Venezuela is violating an agreement the regime made with the United States. In October, the Biden administration lifted general economic sanctions targeting Venezuela’s mining and oil industries in support of an agreement struck in Barbados between Maduro and the opposition to hold free and fair elections in 2024.

Banning Machado from running for president amounts to a repudiation of the agreement, both the opposition and the United States have claimed. The US State Department swiftly moved to reimpose sanctions on Venezuela – but so far has done so only on its gold sector.

“In response to anti-democratic actions by Maduro representatives, the United States has revoked sanctions relief for Venezuela’s gold sector. The relief for Venezuelan oil and gas sectors will be renewed in April only if Maduro representatives follow through on their commitments,” US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Twitter.

But Maduro and his allies know they have Biden between a rock and a hard place when it comes to any further action, especially given there will also be a presidential election in the United States and immigration is once again a wedge issue.

During fiscal year 2023, Venezuelans (266,071) accounted for more migrant encounters at the US-Mexico border than any other nationality bar Mexicans (717,333).

Venezuela has recently been cooperating with the United States to reduce illegal immigration by allowing removal flights.

Maduro knows that’s one of at least two cards (the other is oil) he has in his favor when it comes to negotiating with the United States over any further sanctions.

The problem for the Biden administration is that if it is seen as going easy on Maduro regarding further sanctions, it would be open to the criticism of being weak or more interested in Venezuelan oil than in Venezuelan democracy, said Winter of Americas Quarterly.

But if it gets tough, Maduro can play hard ball on immigration.

Venezuela’s Vice President Delcy Rodríguez said recently her country would revoke repatriation flights for Venezuelan migrants from the US if Washington’s “economic aggression” against Caracas intensified.

“Maduro, at some level, holds a part of Biden’s reelection chances in his hands.  I don’t want to overestimate that, but it’s real.  And there’s a chance that if the Biden administration pushes hard on the sanctions question, Maduro will cease all cooperation in a way that could damage Biden’s chances at getting reelected,” Winter said.

According to Winter, that would explain why the State Department decided to revoke sanctions only in Venezuela’s gold sector, and not oil and gas.

“It’s not just Venezuelan democracy that’s at stake here. It’s also immigration and oil during an election year in the United States. The Maduro dictatorship has time and again found themselves to be clever negotiators, aware of the leverage that they hold,” Winter said.

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