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Venezuela’s Maduro pardons more than 100 political opponents ahead of elections

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas in March. (Manaure Quintero/Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro on Monday issued the most sweeping list of presidential pardons since he came to power in 2013, cleaning the judicial records of 110 political opponents as his authoritarian government seeks to bolster the credibility of upcoming legislative elections.

The pardons covered major opposition figures including Roberto Marrero, the jailed former chief of staff to U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó, and a host of less prominent political players. While several were in prison pending trials, others included lawmakers who had yet to face formal charges but were under investigation after having their parliamentary immunity from prosecution lifted.

Many of the lawmakers pardoned were either holed up in foreign embassies in Caracas or living in exile as they fought sedition, conspiracy, terrorism and other charges.

Jorge Rodríguez, Maduro’s communications minister, announced the pardons Monday afternoon, calling them “a message to the world and to Venezuela” about the December elections.

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Venezuela’s opposition is divided over whether to participate in the government-run vote after Maduro declared victory in a 2018 election widely viewed as fraudulent. Guaidó, whose claim to be the country’s constitutional interim president is based on his leadership of the National Assembly, says he will boycott it.

“If [these opposition politicians] want to run, it’s up to them,” Rodríguez said.

Pardoned lawmakers dismissed the move as a bid to win domestic and international legitimacy for elections that critics including the Trump administration view as an attempt by Maduro to seize control of the assembly, seen as Venezuela’s last democratic institution.

“The usurper Nicolás Maduro pretends to fix the situation and force us to participate in the electoral circus,” lawmaker Juan Pablo García tweeted. García was one of many who were pardoned without having been indicted.

“I am not guilty of anything,” he wrote. “My only crime was to oppose the regime.”

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Other opposition leaders were not pardoned. They included, perhaps most prominently, Leopoldo López, Guaidó’s mentor, who has sought sanctuary in the Spanish Embassy since last year, and Juan Requesens, a lawmaker who was released from prison to house arrest over the weekend.

The pardons were at least partly the product of government negotiations with senior opposition leaders who have been critical of Guaidó’s leadership, according to two people with direct knowledge of the talks. They include Henrique Capriles, who ran for president against Maduro and his late mentor Hugo Chávez, and who maintains a significant base of support on his own. He has argued privately that the opposition should participate in legislative elections under certain conditions.

Capriles did not respond to a request for comment. Allies, however, said they welcomed the government’s announcement.

“We are happy about these measures,” Julio Borges tweeted. “But we cannot forget those who are still in jail and above all, our patriotic victims of torture by the dictatorship.”

The pardons appeared aimed at deepening fractures within the opposition over the course ahead.

Before Guaidó’s rise last year, the Venezuelan opposition had been long paralyzed by infighting. For a time, Guaidó managed to unite its disparate elements into a coalition focused on unseating Maduro. But massive street protests and an abortive uprising failed to bring change, talks between the sides led nowhere, and now the coronavirus has limited further activism. Guaidó’s popular support is now markedly dimmed, and the unity he helped foster is in danger of falling apart.

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Guaidó has warned that the tools that have enabled fraud in previous elections, including an electoral commission loyal to Maduro and government control of the official media, remain in place.

But others in the opposition, joined by senior members of Venezuela’s influential Catholic Church, have encouraged negotiations aimed at joining the vote. Maduro’s government, meanwhile, has launched a charm offensive; opposition lawmakers say they’ve been offered cash and pardons if they agree to participate.

“It’s become an open secret that Capriles is frustrated with the current stalemate and is in favor of trying to mobilize Venezuelans around the reality of the country rather than insisting on a strategy of abstention,” said Geoff Ramsey, director of the Venezuela program at the independent Washington Office on Latin America.

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Ramsey and others warn that elections that are neither free nor fair could bolster Maduro’s grip on power. Yet divisions within the opposition now go far beyond the December vote, and center on growing dissent over whether to continue following Guaidó.

U.S. officials have tried to quell that dissent, saying they’ll continue to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader whatever the outcome of the December vote. But that hasn’t stopped the internal sniping over his leadership.

Senior opposition figure María Corina Machado met with Guaidó over the weekend, and then issued a pointed critique.

“The country gave you a task that you couldn’t or didn’t want to fulfill it,” she wrote in a public letter. “That task was limited to ending the regime.”

Analysts said the dissent is playing into Maduro’s hands.

“The government wants a weakened and divided opposition,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst.

Faiola reported from Miami. Mariana Zúñiga in Caracas contributed to this report.

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