Venezuela pact sets electoral appeal process

FILE - Maria Corina Machado joins in the singing of the Venezuelan national anthem during a ceremony with the Opposition Primary Commission to recognize her electoral win in the opposition-organized primary election to choose a presidential candidate to face President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela, Oct. 26, 2023. The Comptroller General's Office disqualified Machado from holding public office for 15 years just a few months before the primaries in which she was victorious with popular support of 92.35%. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)
FILE - Maria Corina Machado joins in the singing of the Venezuelan national anthem during a ceremony with the Opposition Primary Commission to recognize her electoral win in the opposition-organized primary election to choose a presidential candidate to face President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela, Oct. 26, 2023. The Comptroller General's Office disqualified Machado from holding public office for 15 years just a few months before the primaries in which she was victorious with popular support of 92.35%. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

MEXICO CITY -- Venezuela's government and a faction of the opposition have agreed on a process through which aspiring presidential candidates who were banned from running for office can attempt to get that decision reversed. The timeline to file an appeal opened Friday.

The agreement, released late Thursday by negotiators from each side and the Norwegian diplomats guiding the dialogue, gives the candidates until Dec. 15 to challenge their ban -- a tool the Venezuelan government has repeatedly used to sideline adversaries, including most recently against opposition leader and presidential candidate María Corina Machado.

The deal is part of a broader agreement signed in October between a U.S.-backed opposition group and the government of Nicolás Maduro focused on electoral conditions ahead of the 2024 presidential election. It is also expected to keep the U.S. government from reimposing some economic sanctions on Maduro's administration.

The October agreement triggered some sanctions relief in the oil, gas, and mining sectors. But the U.S. government, aware that Maduro has breached agreements before, threatened to reverse some of the relief if Venezuela's government failed to establish by the end of November a timeline and process to quickly reinstate all candidates.

The agreement announced Thursday instructs interested candidates to file an appeal in person before the electoral chamber of Venezuela's top court, which is stacked with judges who are loyal to the government and just over a month ago suspended the opposition's primary election process.

The steps outlined in the agreement also force interested appellants into a quasi-gag order, banning them from incorporating "offensive or disrespectful concepts against the institutions of the State" in their appeal and public statements.

The document leaves open to interpretation what constitutes offensive or disrespectful comments. It also lacks a timeline for the judges to rule on the request, stating only that they would do so "in accordance with the principles of speed, efficiency and effectiveness included in the Constitution."

"It's just really puzzling, it's really thin, and it's really quite comical in many senses," said Ryan Berg, director of the Americas Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We've been demanding this process, but this is essentially tantamount to Maduro telling us when in the future he decides to make an executive decision on candidate bans."

Despite the process's lack of clarity, Berg said, it seems likely "that's going to be sufficient" for the Biden administration to hold off on snapback sanctions review.

Machado, a former lawmaker and longtime government foe, won the opposition's presidential primary with more than 90% of support. The government announced a 15-year ban against Machado days after she had formally entered the race, but she was able to participate in the election because the effort was organized by a commission that received no help from Venezuela's electoral authorities.

Machado's campaign on Friday declined to comment on the appeal process. Her ban alleges fraud and tax violations and accuses her of seeking the economic sanctions the U.S. imposed on Venezuela.

A United Nations-backed panel investigating human rights abuses in Venezuela earlier this year said Maduro's government has intensified efforts to curtail democratic freedoms ahead of the 2024 election. That includes subjecting some politicians, human rights defenders and other opponents to detention, surveillance, threats, defamatory campaigns and arbitrary criminal proceedings.