Venezuela's Rosales willing to cede ballot place to opposition unity candidate

By Mariela Nava

MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) -Venezuela presidential hopeful Manuel Rosales said on Wednesday he was willing to hand over his place on the ballot to a unity candidate, amid uncertainty over who will carry the opposition's banner in a July contest against President Nicolas Maduro.

Neither the landslide winner of an October opposition primary nor her alternate were able to register for the race before a Monday deadline, though two opposition groups, including Rosales' A New Time party, managed to register candidates.

The opposition has until an April 20 substitution deadline to hold internal negotiations about whether to back one of the registered candidates or name alternates.

"I say it with my hand on my heart: have a negotiation, seek a candidate who can overcome the obstacles of the government, search for them and I will hand over the candidacy to whoever," Rosales, the governor of Zulia province, said at an event in Maracaibo.

Rosales, who some in the opposition say has become too close to the ruling party during his governorship, said on Tuesday he registered to ensure there was an opposition candidate and prevent absenteeism.

The Democratic Unity group registered Edmundo Gonzalez, a former ambassador, but sources told Reuters his listing is meant as a placeholder for a potential substitute.

Maria Corina Machado, who won the October opposition primary by a landslide 93% but is barred from holding office, said this week she was taking decisions on any potential alliance with Rosales "day by day".

Various opinion polls had forecast Machado would pick up at least 50% of votes to Maduro's 20%. It is unclear if any other opposition figure could rally as much support as Machado, especially if she does not wholeheartedly back them.

Despite Washington backing, Venezuela's opposition has struggled to dislodge Maduro, who has been in power since 2013 and who won a 2018 election boycotted by the opposition over concerns the vote was rigged.

Many prominent Venezuelan opposition figures have faced bans or arrest. Last week, Venezuela's attorney general Tarek Saab said two people close to Machado had been arrested and warrants were out for seven other members of her team, in the latest wave of detentions of activists.

Some opposition leaders had sought refuge at the Argentine embassy in Caracas, the Argentine government said in a statement late on Tuesday.

Argentina's foreign ministry declined to disclose the names of those at its embassy, citing security reasons, but local media reported they were six politicians linked to Machado.

Saab said on Tuesday that two men had been detained at a Maduro event, allegedly carrying firearms, and were connected to Machado, an accusation her Vente Venezuela party vehemently denied.

Maduro was persecuting the party by categorizing it as a terrorist group, the broad opposition coalition said in a social media post on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Mariela Nava in Maracaibo, additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Lucila Sigal in Buenos Aires; Writing by Valentine Hilaire and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)