An unknown retiree is challenging Venezuela’s strongman—and leading big in polls

Edmundo González, the soft-spoken 74-year-old is the opposition’s presidential candidate in the July 28 election.
Edmundo González, the soft-spoken 74-year-old is the opposition’s presidential candidate in the July 28 election.


Edmundo González, a former career diplomat, is an anomaly in the country’s rough politics, but he faces a rigged election system

A few months ago, Edmundo González’s life in retirement consisted of academic conferences, visiting old friends and playing with grandchildren at his Caracas high-rise.

Few in Venezuela knew him.

Now, the soft-spoken 74-year-old is the opposition’s presidential candidate in the July 28 election and what analysts say could be a last hope for democracy in a country ruled for 11 years by the strongman he is challenging, President Nicolás Maduro.

González has never run for office, but polls give the former career diplomat a whopping 20-point advantage over Maduro, who is seeking a third six-year term. The same polls show Maduro is widely reviled for driving the oil-rich nation to ruin and leading a quarter of the population—some eight million people—to flee the country.

“I’d never done party politics, nor been in a popular election before," González said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “This is all completely new to me."

Venezuela’s normally fractious opposition came together to rally around González as a third-string choice after María Corina Machado, a charismatic pro-business politician who garnered 90% of the votes in a primary last year, was banned by the regime from running. So was her handpicked replacement.

The government never explained why it let González run. His face now appears on the ballot as the candidate for three opposition parties, crammed among 13 boxes with images of Maduro and a handful of other candidates with little support in polls.

On the ballot, Maduro’s face appears 13 times while González appears three times, alongside a handful of other candidates with little support in polls.

But González’s commanding lead may not be enough to bank on when the vote in Venezuela is neither free nor democratic, say Western diplomats and human-rights groups. The Maduro administration has been accused of arbitrarily jailing dissidents, rigging elections and coercing desperate voters with food handouts.

Merely 1% of the 4.5 million voting-age Venezuelans exiled abroad, who make up nearly a quarter of the national electorate, will be able to vote, the civil-society group AlertaVenezuela said in a report. The European Union, which was supposed to lead the largest electoral observation team, was disinvited by Caracas until the bloc lifts all sanctions against the Maduro government. Smaller monitoring teams from the United Nations and the U.S.-based Carter Center will be permitted. Maduro controls the National Electoral Council, the courts and the armed forces.

Still, about two-thirds of voters plan to participate in the election, according to a recent poll conducted by ClearPath Strategies and Consultores 21, which gives González and Maduro support of 56% and 35%, respectively.

“We’re heading toward an unprecedented situation where we’re looking at high participation, despite a government that has set one of the worst conditions for elections," said Guillermo Bolinaga, a Venezuelan with the political-risk consulting firm Opportunitas Advisors in Florida.

The elections come after efforts by the U.S. and its European allies to coax Maduro into holding a fair vote in exchange for relieving some of Washington’s economic sanctions against Caracas. Maduro’s government signed a deal in Barbados in October with the U.S.-backed opposition, committing to holding a democratic vote. But he later broke off the agreement, complaining that the U.S. hadn’t helped Venezuela regain access to offshore accounts frozen by financial sanctions.

“We are clear-eyed that democratic change will not be easy and requires serious commitment," a spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council, which led negotiations with Maduro’s envoys, said.

As part of a campaign blitz, regime officials appear daily on state television and radio to assure the public that Maduro will win. Their own polling numbers give him a comfortable lead, they say. Meanwhile, on social media, Maduro appears calm and in charge in carefully edited videos capturing him strolling over sand dunes and dancing salsa with his wife.

In speeches, Maduro says only he can maintain order. He largely blames U.S. sanctions for Venezuela’s troubles and slams the opposition for supporting them. The economic downfall has stripped Maduro’s socialist party of the majority it once held in rural areas and urban slums. But it still counts on votes from loyalists, some driven by government handouts and others by a conviction that their leftist movement can only reach its goals if they remain in power at any cost, the International Crisis Group said in a report.

“Are we going to let that decrepit old man, who represents savage capitalism, into power?" Maduro asked supporters at a rally over the weekend, where he called his rivals fascists who are seeking to start a civil war. His supporters shouted no.

Maduro’s aides in recent days applauded workers of the state airline for berating González with insults as he was taking a flight and then posted videos of the incident on social media.

In an effort to present a softer image, Maduro is now campaigning as a Christian. In April, he invited an Evangelical preacher from Kenya to give services featuring purported miracle healings, which were broadcast on national television. In another recent religious service, Maduro asked God for forgiveness for sins he and his lieutenants had committed.

“As president of the republic, I voluntarily hand over this nation to Christ," the burly, mustachioed leader said at the presidential palace with a group of Christian pastors.

The leadership’s troubles may make it hard for Maduro to leave, political analysts say. He and his inner circle face international criminal investigations for corruption and rights abuses, including a U.S. indictment for narco-terrorism. The International Criminal Court at The Hague is investigating alleged crimes against humanity, including the torture and the killing of political detractors.

“The political cost of giving up power is his own life," said Andrés Izarra, a former government official who broke ranks with Maduro and is in exile in Germany. “It’s not an exaggeration, that’s the risk for that whole mafia."

Rafael Guzman, a former lawmaker and adviser to a major opposition party, said Maduro’s rivals need to offer credible guarantees of security and possible amnesty to some regime officials to get them to give up power.

“If there’s no negotiations, there’s no transition," Guzman said.

In the interview, González declined to discuss amnesty or the international criminal charges against Maduro. But he said his campaign promotes national reconciliation.

“We could have a situation here where the magnitude of our victory will be so wide that the government understands that we have a new reality in the country," González said.

The next presidential term doesn’t begin until January, five months after the election. “We’re going to have to sit down with them and see how the government responds," he said.

David Smilde, a professor at Tulane University who tracks Venezuelan politics, said González’s measured statements and amicable image are a shift from the opposition’s hard-line leadership in the past as he seeks to calm regime figures who are fearful of retribution if they lose power.

“The key to understanding Edmundo is that his was not an intentional candidacy. It’s a marriage of convenience," said Smilde. “It wasn’t part of a conscious strategy, but it’s actually been working out precisely in a good-cop-bad-cop kind of way that I think is quite positive."

González says he wants to steer the country into a radically different direction by restoring state institutions and regaining investor confidence to jump-start the economy, including the country’s vital oil sector. Creating jobs, he says, is essential to stem the outflow of migrants and bring some of those who left during Maduro’s rule back home.

An ambassador to Algeria and then Argentina, González left the government in 2002, when Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, ruled. He has since worked at foreign-policy think tanks, with a short stint a decade ago as international liaison for the opposition.

González, often seen dressed in suit and tie in a country where politicians usually prefer tracksuits, has largely kept a diplomatic demeanor since stepping into the limelight.

He doesn’t directly insult regime figures. He refers to Maduro as president, a stark change from opposition leaders who call him illegitimate for allegedly rigging his 2018 re-election.

And González hasn’t done a lot of campaigning. In fact, it is Machado who has been on a whirlwind tour, traveling to remote mining villages and ramshackle towns that lack electricity or running water to urge voters to support González.

“We’re going to decree an end to socialism. Never again," Machado told a rally in western Venezuela recently. As one of the regime’s most ardent foes, Machado has long advocated overturning a socialist system by privatizing state enterprises and eliminating an ossified welfare system.

The government’s intelligence service has been on her campaign caravan’s tail the whole time, stopping cars at checkpoints, leveling fines against street vendors who serve campaigners food and closing hotels where they stay. Nearly 50 activists and campaign organizers working with Machado or González have been arrested in recent months, according to the nonprofit Access to Justice, a Caracas nonprofit that tracks abuses in Venezuela’s legal system.

Among them was Luis López, a 64-year-old retired professor and journalist who was arrested by police last month at a public plaza as he was teaching prospective voters how to vote, relatives said.

His family was able to visit him on Wednesday for the first time, said his sister Betty López, but they are still unclear of what he is accused of having done. The charge against him is “incitement to hate," an accusation that rights groups say is used to stifle dissent and is punishable with 20 years in prison.

“It’s outrageous. My brother didn’t do anything wrong. He’s just informing people," said López, who struggles to tend to her 98-year-old mother without her brother’s help.

She said she hoped for change in the election, but the arrest has left her doubtful.

“I’m putting my trust and faith in God," she said. “He’s the only one who can sort this mess out now."

Write to Kejal Vyas at

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