Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro addresses the media in Caracas
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro addresses the media in Caracas Reuters / LEONARDO FERNANDEZ VILORIA

U.S. spy agencies believe that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro will likely retain power this year in the country, as his grip on its electoral institutions and willingness to use that power in his favor will be enough to feign off any attempts from the opposition in this year's elections.

The conclusion comes from the agencies "Annual Threat Assessment" report, which was unclassified this week. It names other cards Maduro holds in his hand to ensure victory: the banning of "top opposition candidates, restricted media coverage of opposition politicians" and the placement of "close allies in the National Electoral Council to ensure Maduro's victory while also trying to avoid blatant fraud."

The last Venezuelan elections were considered fraudulent by a significant portion of the international community, leading many countries to not recognize Maduro's proclaimed victory and consider Juan Guaidó, the legislative body's president and opposition leader, as interim president. After years without significant progress and the end of his legal term, the countries mostly stopped recognizing Guaidó. Stakeholders are now focused on ensuring the elections are as free and fair as possible.

However, the efforts have encountered significant challenges, especially given the aforementioned banning of opposition candidates, particularly María Corina Machado, who won wide-ranging primary with over 90% of the votes and has the strongest shot at beating Maduro.

Along with several other opposition leaders, she was banned from holding public office by government-friendly courts after being found guilty of corruption and supporting foreign sanctions against the government.

Machado so far is pushing forward with her campaign, traveling around the country and holding political rallies. "We are at a crucial moment, the regime intends to make us feel disoriented and defeated when we are stronger than ever," she told a crowd Wednesday in the industrial city of Mariara, amid chants of "freedom, freedom, freedom!"

However, the time for definition nears, as March 25 is the deadline for the registration of candidates. Some opposition actors have voiced their support for picking an alternative to Machado given the low possibilities that she can compete.

One of the people in this camp is Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate himself. He said in an interview that "an option" should be the priority as she has been banned from running in this year's presidential elections.

Henrique Capriles and María Corina Machado
Henrique Capriles and María Corina Machado AFP

"It's not about having a plan B, I don't think that the correct choice of words is to talk about a substitute, I'd rather talk about options", said Capriles, adding that he doesn't believe "Maduro will lift his ban, regardless of the pressure."

"It's not a secret that, as of today, Machado is the person who would defeat Maduro with most ease" said Capriles in the interview. Nevertheless, he said, "political change should always prevail." "There has to be political will and unity", he added, in what wa a clear dig at Machado's aggressive rhetoric. Machado, on the other hand, took another hit on Sunday as Venezuela's attorney general announced the arrest of Emill Brandt Ulloa, one of her regional campaign leaders, for allegedly "taking part in violent demonstrations against the government."

Another alternative could be for the opposition to call for election boycott as it had in 2018, when Maduro won a second, successive term in elections widely rejected as fraudulent and met with Western sanctions.

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