Venezuelan Opposition Presidential Candidate Gonzalez Seeks Unity In First Rally

Opposition leader Maria Corina Machado is lifted onto the stage during the campaign launch for Venezuelan presidential candidate Edmundo González Urrutia, in La Victoria, Venezuela, Saturday, May 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
Opposition leader Maria Corina Machado is lifted onto the stage during the campaign launch for Venezuelan presidential candidate Edmundo González Urrutia, in La Victoria, Venezuela, Saturday, May 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
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LA VICTORIA, Venezuela (AP) — The presidential candidate of Venezuela’s chief opposition coalition on Saturday sought to cultivate a mood of hope and possibility in a large rally that marked the start of a campaign he admittedly never imagined leading.

Edmundo González Urrutia, the former diplomat chosen by the coalition to replace the fiery leader María Corina Machado on the ballot, drew thousands of supporters to the streets of La Victoria, his hometown.

He urged them to imagine a country where public services are not a luxury, people are not imprisoned for their political beliefs and millions will return after having migrated throughout a decade in search of better economic opportunities.

“I guarantee a peaceful alternation in which all political forces will be able to exercise their rights within the framework of the constitution,” González said, addressing an audience of retirees, young adults and residents of the capital who traveled to see him and locals of the once-thriving industrial city.

"I want to call on all Venezuelans to join me in a peaceful and orderly change of government. We will move from division to unity, from abuse by a few to the rule of law for all, and from this undignified present to a dignified future for all.”

González was joined on stage by Machado, whose candidacy for the July 28 election was barred by the government of President Nicolás Maduro. The crowd cheered for both under sweltering temperatures. Street vendors sold T-shirts and baseball caps promoting the duo for $10. Venezuelan flags were also on sale.

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 in January an administrative decision to ban her from office. She appointed a substitute in March — former academic Corina Yoris — but she, too, was barred from the ballot. Four days later, the coalition picked González.

La Victoria resident Maria Contreras, 75, arrived 4 1/2 hours early to the street where Saturday’s rally was expected to take place. She waved at some acquaintances as they slowly began to arrive, most on foot, to catch a glimpse of Machado and González, whose mother was Contreras’ fourth-grade teacher.

“We will achieve it! I have faith in God, and I ask him for this, on my knees, every day so that my grandchildren and children can return,” Contreras, a retired secretary, said. “I came here alone and on an empty stomach. It’s horrible what happened to this community.”

Contreras said she cleans homes in exchange for food. Her $3 a month pension does not allow her to even buy a kilogram of cheese or a 1-liter bottle of cooking oil.

La Victoria, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of the capital, Caracas, was once home to an auto assembly plant, a glass making company and other industrial facilities. But those shut down, and the city’s streets are lined with boarded up businesses, including an auto dealership and restaurants.

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. Chávez 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.

González, surrounded by Machado, his wife, sister-in-law and a daughter, told the crowd in La Victoria that he needed to confess to them that he “never” aspired to run for public office, but that he agreed to become the Unitary Platform’s candidate to move Venezuela “one step forward.”

“Let’s imagine for a moment the country that is coming,” he told the cheering audience with a bit more energy than his usual subdued tone characteristic of a diplomat. “A country in which the president does not insult or see his adversaries as enemies. A country where when you get home from work you know that your money has value, that when you turn on the switch there will be electricity, that when you turn on the faucet there will be water.”

But it did not match the energy of a seasoned politician like Machado, who practically crowd-surfed to reach the stage Saturday.

President Maduro is seeking a third term in July. His presidency has been marked by a complex crisis that pushed millions of people into poverty and more than 7.7 million others to migrate.

Many of those gathered Saturday in La Victoria loudly rejected the president, whose party again held a rally on the same day and community as the opposition coalition.

“I don’t want a bag!” some chanted referring to a bag of subsided food the government hands out to people. “What I want is for Nicolás to leave!”