The Washington Post published an editorial yesterday that concludes: "Whether Mr. Maduro now makes way for a truly competitive political process, or just collects oil revenue and pays lip service to democracy, will depend first on Mr. Maduro, but, second, on whether the opposition, Venezuelan civil society and the United States hold him to his commitments. Otherwise, the gamble will have made the situation even worse than before." After the resounding victory of Maria Corina Machado in primary elections held on Sunday, and the unanimous support she got from other opposition leaders, the Maduro regime is facing a new reality: a nonconforming opponent.
Maduro agreed to a number of things last week in Barbados. Crucially, to "respect the right of every political party to select its candidate for the presidential elections in a free manner", and to continue the dialogue and negotiation in "furtherance of an inclusive democracy and a culture of tolerance and political coexistence."
Since its first electoral win in 1999, chavismo has been blessed with arguably the world's most incompetent political opposition. Time and again, those who have taken upon themselves to lead Venezuela's opposition have only helped to consolidate the grip that Hugo Chavez and then Nicolas Maduro have on power. The last example was, of course, Juan Guaido, a cretin so deficient that he thought the prospect of ousting Maduro (by Raul Gorrin, Maikel Moreno, Vladimir Padrino and Leopoldo Lopez) had a fighting chance.
Machado has been universally despised, both in opposition and chavismo camps. Apart from evidently racist and sexist undertones, her status is seen as an impediment. Now that Maduro has agreed to a road map, who stands to gain more from sticking to the plan: him or Machado?
Venezuela has not seen competitive, fair and transparent elections since the beginning of this century. A clear indication of this is that when elections are celebrated outside the constraints and control of the official electoral watchdog (like those that have taken place in Venezuelan universities), chavista candidates lose time after time. The electronic electoral system has never been audited. The electoral roll, heavily padded over the years, doesn't stand for scrutiny either.
Machado's victory, nearly 1.5 million votes thus far in a process poorly organised and heavily undermined by the State apparatus, effectively makes her the new, de facto leader of the opposition. Nothing that Maduro, or wife Cilia, or Diosdado Cabello say or do is going to change that, unless they want to be seen now as the opposition's overlords. Machado, or her representatives, have won a seat at the negotiation table. Again, Maduro can't hope to impose who his interlocutors are going to be, without looking like the total autocrat he is.
Either way, he is playing for time. A united opposition under new leadership, a road map to competitive / free elections and electoral scrutiny won't be allowed. Doing so means swift and inevitable defeat. This is why Maduro said a few hours ago that deals made "with the devil" (who's that?) may not be honored. This is why publicity shy First Lady Cilia came to his program yesterday to decry fraud in the opposition primary (without presenting a shred of evidence).
The Biden administration has its hands full. Arguably, the most pressing problem it has with Venezuela is the thousands of illegal immigrants coming in. State of the oil market and prices aren't going to change by recently announced sanctions relief. The pile of money that's coming to the deeply impoverished nation will, no doubt, be put to good electoral use. Many things can happen between now and presidential elections in 2024.
Once upon a time, Chavez was in a similar quandary. He got out of trouble by sowing and fostering division and through unrivalled corruption. That's likely to become Maduro's real road map. He is no democrat and has no intention of relinquishing power, nor to be subjected to the whims of the electorate.