MIAMI — Former Latin American presidents are rallying behind Venezuelan opposition candidate Maria Corina Machado, calling the forthcoming 2024 presidential elections in the South American nation a pivotal moment to defeat authoritarianism in the region.
The former presidents Iván Duque of Colombia, Jorge Quiroga of Bolivia, Jamil Mahuad Witt of Ecuador and Juan Guaidó, the former head of the Venezuelan National Assembly whom the United States and several countries recognized as interim president for four years, weighed in on the most significant challenges facing the region during the World Strategic Forum held in Miami on Tuesday.
Echoing President Joe Biden’s views about an ongoing global conflict between democracy and authoritarianism, the Latin American leaders said the fate of democracy in the region is at stake in the presidential elections in Venezuela next year, where the recently elected candidate for the opposition, Machado, is bidding to unseat strongman Nicolas Maduro.
In a recent deal signed in Barbados between the opposition and Maduro’s representatives, the Venezuelan government agreed that it would “reinstate” all opposition candidates that it arbitrarily banned previously. In June Machado was barred from holding public office for 15 years. As part of the deal, the Biden administration, which helped broker the agreement in secret negotiations, partially lifted some oil sanctions on Venezuela.
After voters overwhelmingly backed Machado in the opposition primary elections held in October, regime officials said she would not be allowed to run in 2024, and the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court “temporarily suspended” the primaries’ results over fraud allegations.
Quiroga and Duque urged the Biden administration to reinstate the sanctions if Machado is not recognized as a candidate by Nov. 30, a deadline floated in a media interview on Tuesday by Juan Gonzalez, the Western Hemisphere director at the White House’s National Security Council, who led the negotiations on the U.S. side.
In a statement last month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States could reimpose sanctions on Venezuela if the regime fails to “define a specific timeline and process for the expedited reinstatement of all candidates” before the end of November. Gonzalez told Colombia’s television channel NTV24: “After November 30, if those expectations are not met, we will have to take steps to dismantle the sanctions’ relief.”
But Duque said in the Miami event that Machado did not need to be approved as a candidate by Maduro because she was the legitimate choice of voters in the opposition primaries.
Quiroga said he told European leaders that Machado’s and the opposition’s fight to unseat Maduro was as crucial for Latin America as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine was to them. The former Bolivian president argued that Venezuela has become a playground for groups like Hamas, the Lebanon-based militia Hezbollah and the Colombia-based National Liberation Army or ELN as it is known in Spanish, all considered terrorist groups by the United States.
He also said that Venezuela has been “occupied” by “really bad nefarious octopuses in the world with tentacles that are very long: Russia, Iran and Cuba.”
“So we’re not only talking about democracy and liberty for Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, we’re talking about a hemisphere that is free of these pernicious negative influences, and it’s all riding on her,” Quiroga said, referring to Machado.
“María Corina becomes the president of Venezuela and the night will be over for Cuba,” he said, quoting the late Oswaldo Payá, a Cuban opposition member who was likely killed by Cuban state security agents, according to an independent investigation by the Organization of American States. Cuba denied Quiroga entry in 2018 on a trip he was planning to visit Payá’s tomb.
Quiroga said that Western countries have turned a blind eye for too long to Cuba’s efforts to “destroy” other countries in Latin America by exporting its socialist ideas.
“‘Cuba Libre’ should stop being an oxymoron alcoholic request at a bar late at night, and it should be a feeling that permeates everyone around the world,” he said.
Guaidó, who had to flee Venezuela and seek exile in the United States in April after a divided Venezuelan opposition voted to eliminate the interim presidency, said the international community should hold authoritarian regimes accountable and do more to protect opposition members inside Venezuela.
The former presidents also weighed in on other challenges facing the region, including rising populism, how to adapt to climate change and how to root out “narco-politics,” the term former Ecuadorian president Mahuad used to refer to the increasing capacity of drug cartels to buy votes, politicians and judges in Latin America.
Duque said Latin American countries should urgently plan to adapt to climate change, which is particularly relevant for a region that includes the Amazon, 70 percent of the world’s high-altitude ecosystems and vast coral reefs. He said money to protect those natural resources will be critical for rural communities in the future.
Quiroga also took a jab at the Biden administration’s policies on trade, which he said have pushed countries like Ecuador and Uruguay to pursue free trade agreements with China.
“Unfortunately, the United States and Europe, countries that are powerhouses economically, that we share economic values, democratic values and principles with, are not open for trade business,” he said. “You cannot get a free trade agreement from the U.S. Congress. … But guess what, China is open for business.”
Duque cast Latin America as the best market for U.S. companies, not only because it is close geographically but because it “is more in line with values, principles and history. And it’s also a market that has better labor workforce standards. If we’re going to think about reducing dependency in Asia or China, ‘nearshoring’ has to occur,” he said, referring to moving business activities to countries closer to the final product’s markets.
“And we need to see Latin America as a reference model for dealing with migration,” he added. “You don’t have to be a rich country to do the right thing on migration.”
Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader, praised Duque, whose government granted temporary legal status to about 2 million Venezuelan migrants fleeing the Maduro regime, for being a “champion for humble Venezuelan people.”
Quiroga, in turn, called Guaidó “a hero.”
“He stood there. He risked his liberty, his family. He got us where we are. Now is Maria Corina’s turn to finish the job.”