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Venezuela Announces Election Date, With Opposition Candidate Still Banned

Venezuelan officials announced on Tuesday that national elections that many hadhoped would forge a path toward democracy will be held on July 28.

But the decision on a date comes a month after the country’s highest court barred the leading opposition candidate from the ballot, leading many to question how free and fair the summer election would be.

Still, the announcement from the government of President Nicolás Maduro is at least a partial fulfillment of a commitment to the United States to hold elections this year in exchange for a lifting of crippling economic sanctions.

In October, Mr. Maduro signed an accord with the country’s opposition and agreed to work toward a free and fair presidential vote. In the agreement, Mr. Maduro said he would hold an election before the end of this year, and the United States in turn lifted some sanctions as a sign of good will.

But just days later, Mr. Maduro watched as an opposition candidate, María Corina Machado, won more than 90 percent of the vote in a primary election, organized by the opposition and without the involvement of the government. The decisive results emphasized her popularity and raised the prospect that she could beat him in a general election.

Since then, Mr. Maduro’s government has declared Ms. Machado ineligible to run, over what it claimed were financial irregularities that occurred when she was a national legislator, and arrested several members of her campaign. Men on motorbikes have attacked supporters at her events.

The temporary easing of U.S. sanctions on the oil and gas sector is set to expire on April 18, and the Biden administration could choose then to reimpose them.

Tuesday’s announcement “makes it crystal clear that Venezuela will not have free and fair elections this year” and “all but guarantees that the Biden administration will snap back sanctions,” said Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow for Venezuela at the Atlantic Council, a research institution based in Washington.

Chavismo, the socialist-inspired movement that Mr. Maduro heads, has controlled Venezuela for 25 years. Mr. Maduro came to power in 2013 after the death of his predecessor, President Hugo Chávez, and he stayed in power following a 2018 election whose results were widely considered fraudulent. That election was followed by a period of international isolation, in which many countries followed the lead of the United States in refusing to conduct business with Venezuela.

The date of the coming election, July 28, is Mr. Chávez’s birthday. The announcement came on the date of his death, March 5.

The choice is probably intended to leverage Mr. Chávez’s legacy to bolster the electability of Mr. Maduro, who is deeply unpopular, according to Phil Gunson, an analyst with International Crisis Group, who is based in the country’s capital, Caracas.

Opposition candidates have until March 25 to register. It is unclear if Ms. Machado’s party will try to insist on her candidacy or if it will look to unite around another candidate.

A fractured opposition will probably be a boon to Mr. Maduro’s candidacy.

“The combination of a divided opposition, heavy abstention and weak opponents gives him the best chance of winning without having to commit fraud,” Mr. Gunson said.

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