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Venezuela's barred opposition candidate is now the fiery surrogate of her lesser-known replacement

SABANA DE MENDOZA, Venezuela — (AP) — At an intersection packed in four directions, rallygoers scream and light up cellphones in the evening as Venezuelan opposition figure María Corina Machado climbs onto a flatbed truck like a presidential candidate.

She has been barred from the July 28 election. Still, she crisscrosses the country, shaking hands, taking selfies, blowing kisses and promising the defeat of President Nicolás Maduro — all as a surrogate for a quiet former diplomat who has not yet begun to campaign.

“María Corina! María Corina!” the people yell, sometimes in unison, in the small Andean foothill town of Sabana de Mendoza. Their cheers are deafening.

Machado's challenge is whether she can translate her fame and charisma into votes for Edmundo González Urrutia, who was chosen by the chief opposition coalition after Machado was unable to overcome a ruling blocking her candidacy.

“I don’t remember what his name is,” seamstress Danis Cegarra, 48, said of González while she waited with her two children for Machado. “Although we don’t know much about him, we are going to support him. Well, I am going to support him, because I want a change above all because I have children.”

González is the third candidate that the Unitary Platform opposition coalition has promoted as its own this year.

Machado, a former lawmaker, entered 2024 as the group's candidate after easily winning an October presidential primary, but a top court loyal to Venezuela's ruling party affirmed an administrative decision to ban her from office. She appointed a substitute in March, former academic Corina Yoris, who also was barred. Four days later, the coalition picked González.

Machado, a free-market proponent who has been campaigning for more than a year, is now introduced as "opposition leader" instead of candidate at her rallies. González, 74, has not yet appeared at rallies together with Machado. He will officially launch his campaign Saturday, though he gave a brief address Thursday to supporters with the characteristic subdued tone of a diplomat.

“He seems to be a very quiet, consensus-based diplomat. María Corina is out there on the stump fire breathing,” said Ryan Berg, director of the Americas Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Her job is to bring out people to vote for Edmundo, but it will be interesting to see what he’s like if he ever goes out there because it’s going to be quite a character mismatch to see him next to her."

González began his career as an aide to Venezuela’s ambassador in the U.S. in the late 1970s. He had postings in Belgium and El Salvador and served as Caracas’ ambassador to Algeria.

His last post was as ambassador to Argentina during the first years of the presidency of Hugo Chávez, who came to power in 1999 and transformed Venezuela with socialist policies like nationalizing industries and launching welfare programs. Chávez handpicked Maduro to replace him before dying of cancer in 2013.

More recently, González worked as an international relations consultant and wrote a historical work on Venezuela during World War II.

He told The Associated Press last week he expects various opposition leaders, in addition to Machado, to be his surrogates.

González, appearing Thursday before several dozen supporters and leaders of the opposition in Caracas, spoke of a nation dedicated to provide education, healthcare and employment to all citizens, regardless of their political leanings. Attendees chanted “President! President!” and he said Venezuela would work toward “reconciliation” starting July 29.

“Only united and organized can we overcome the obstacles as we have done until now,” González said at the headquarters of the Venezuelan College of Engineers. “The Venezuela that is to come will be the country of opportunities.”

In Sabana de Mendoza, about two and half hours after Machado was scheduled to appear on a recent weekday, she delivered a fiery 20-minute, yes-we-can speech from the truck's roof. She spent one of those minutes talking about González.

“This community is going to elect this person, Edmundo González Urrutia, our candidate for the presidency,” Machado said while holding a banner with González’s headshot. “He is a good man; he is an honest man. I ask all of you, who have accompanied me and have given me your trust and affection, that we vote firmly and safely for a man who will do a great job.”

Machado has not only helped to unify the fractured, personality-driven opposition, her campaigning has drawn the attention — and rivalry — of the ruling party.

At least twice in the past month, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela has held rallies on the same day and the same community where Machado was expected to address supporters.

González's headshot will appear three times in the July 28 ballot, one for each party he will officially represent. Meanwhile, the headshot of Maduro, who is seeking a third term, will appear 13 times.

Maduro's 11-year presidency has been marked by a social, political and economic crisis that obliterated the middle class, pushed millions into poverty and turned some government allies into millionaires. Under his watch, more than 7.7 million Venezuelans have abandoned their homeland, settling primarily in Latin America and Caribbean countries.

The effects of the crisis are evident along a country road that leads to Sabana de Mendoza. Abandoned homes and businesses stretch for several hundred meters. Shuttered gas stations are rusting. People fan themselves because there is no electricity for an air cooler.

Hermógenes Alvarado, 56, an unemployed truck driver, said he will vote for “the other” candidate, González, even if he knows next to nothing about him. He said he thinks anyone other than Maduro will bring back jobs to his community.

But next to Alvarado while waiting for a gas station to open, Moises Mendoza, 29, said he is not so certain about Machado’s replacement. The maker of maracas, hammocks and ceramics does not see his vote as automatically transferable. For him, staying home on Election Day is an option.

“I don’t know who Edmundo is, and I imagine that people with the opposition are going to support him to be able to remove this government,” Mendoza said. “If he doesn’t convince me, I won’t vote.”

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Follow AP's Latin America coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/latin-america

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