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Venezuela Blocks Opposition Leader Machado’s Presidential Run

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuela’s top court closed the path for opposition leader Maria Corina Machado to run for president this year, putting the Biden administration in the awkward position of deciding whether to reinstate sanctions it had suspended to support free and fair elections in the Latin American country.

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The court said on Friday it was ratifying a 2021 decision by the Comptroller’s Office that barred Machado, who’s been leading opinion polls for the election, from running for public office for 15 years.

“Maduro and his criminal system decided to take the worst path for them: that of a fraudulent election,” Machado wrote in a statement posted on social media, promising to keep fighting for free elections. “Let there be no doubt, we’re going until the end.”

While Machado said the court’s decision effectively killed the so-called Barbados deal between the US and Venezuela, Maduro’s chief negotiator Jorge Rodriguez said the government has complied with the mechanism established in the agreement, and will carry out elections this year as promised.

The US State Department had no immediate comment.

Despite Venezuela’s moves, bond investors have mostly held onto their bets that the sanctions will remain suspended. Government notes due in 2027 were quoted late Friday at 21.4 cents, according to indicative pricing compiled by Bloomberg, 2 cents lower than their high earlier this month but still far above the 10-cent range where they traded before the Barbados agreement.

The Biden administration has stood to benefit from relaxing the sanctions, in parts because it unleashes more oil onto global markets to rein in prices. Since the US halted sanctions, state-owned Venezuelan oil driller PDVSA has made or reworked deals with several producers, including Repsol SA and Eni SpA. Improving the Venezuelan economy could also help reduce the flow of migrants from Venezuela to the US, where undocumented immigration has become a major issue for voters as Biden seeks reelection.

The Venezuelan court ruled Friday that Machado is accountable for “handing” refiner Citgo to creditor Crystallex International Corp., causing $32.5 billion in damages to the nation; for the bankruptcy of a fertilizer company owned by Venezuela in Colombia; and for working with opposition leader Juan Guaido to seize $4 billion in Venezuelan assets from the international banking system.

That’s the latest in a series of political disqualifications imposed on her: In 2023, the Comptroller’s Office ratified a 2015 decision to ban Machado for irregularities she allegedly committed as a lawmaker, including errors and omissions in asset disclosures.

The court’s decision comes a little more than a month after she and other members of the opposition appealed their ineligibility as part of a road map for fair elections agreed upon with the US. Within a deadline imposed by the government, Machado told the court there was no ban preventing her from running in the election, since she hadn’t been notified of one.

Machado overwhelmingly won the October primaries carried out by the opposition, consolidating herself as the main challenger to President Nicolas Maduro, who will run for a third term as the candidate of the ruling United Socialist Party. A date for the election has yet to be set.

No Clear Path for Opposition

Maduro has been taking an increasingly harder line as he prepares for another presidential run. His government this week arrested three of Machado’s aides for their alleged involvement in a recent plot to kill him, Public Prosecutor Tarek William Saab said Friday.

The court also said former governor and twice presidential candidate Henrique Capriles remained disqualified, leaving the opposition without any clear candidate to challenge Maduro in the election. Other less known opposition leaders, including Leocenis García, Richard Mardo and Pablo Pérez, were allowed to run for public office.

The US has been piling pressure on Maduro to allow the opposition to take part in the election, threatening to reimpose economic sanctions on the country’s exports of oil, gas and gold. As part of the sanctions relief deal, Venezuela on Dec. 20 freed and handed over ten Americans in exchange for Alex Saab, a close ally and financier of Maduro.

--With assistance from Fabiola Zerpa, Nicolle Yapur and Eric Martin.

(Updates with State Department response in fifth paragraph and market activity in sixth paragraph)

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