Analysts call Maduro opposition pardons 'political calculation'

Caracas (AFP) –

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's decision to pardon 110 opposition figures this week is a political calculation aimed at "whitewashing" his image and regaining control of the country's legislature, analysts said.

The leader, desperate to take back the National Assembly and to do so with some credibility, was facing a difficult feat considering that the opposition has plans to boycott the December vote as a protest.

One of Maduro's main aims with the pardons, analysts said, was to ensure that some heavyweight opposition figures take part in the election, lending the vote greater legitimacy.

Maduro caused a surprise on Monday by announcing pardons for a host of opposition lawmakers and associates of Juan Guaido, the opposition leader challenging the president for power.

"The pardon is being handled like a political issue, not a legal one," said Jesus Castillo-Molleda, a political scientist at Zulia University.

Guaido led calls for a boycott after the country's regime-backed Supreme Court appointed the election officials -- a role that is supposed to be handled by the opposition-controlled legislature.

Losing control of the National Assembly in 2015 was a major embarrassment for Maduro and a huge threat to his grasp on power.

Since then, though, the loyalist Supreme Court has stripped the legislature of its powers, ensuring it was unable, for example, to hold a planned recall referendum to try to dislodge Maduro.

In addition, the Supreme Court has disqualified some parties, stripped party leaders of their positions and even appointed new political chiefs to replace them.

The opposition doesn't believe that Maduro has any intention of allowing a free and fair election and analysts suspect his move to pardon opponents is for appearances only.

"Maduro has used the entire state apparatus to oust the majority political opposition, which is what could beat him in an election, like it did in the 2015 legislative elections," Luis Salamanca, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela, told AFP.

With many of the leading opposition figures still sidelined -- including Guaido who has been barred from standing in the election due to a number of open judicial cases -- a potential return to prominence of former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles is possible.

Capriles was part of the "negotiation" to pardon opposition lawmakers so they can take part in the election, Castillo-Molleda said.

Even if Capriles himself is not a candidate, "I do see him taking part in motivating and organizing (opposition) political actors to participate" in the elections, Castillo-Molleda added.

- 'Dirtiest election in history' -

On Tuesday during a national address broadcast on state TV, Maduro said he signed the pardons "to advance dialogue, to advance creation of conditions that allow for the broadest electoral participation, to advance the creation of confidence."

However Salamanca said that the move was a "political calculation," and that Maduro was using the pardons to "whitewash" his image with Venezuelans and the international community where many view him as a dictator.

"He's trying to improve the profile of an election seen as the dirtiest in Venezuela's history," he added.

But to truly do things correctly, Maduro "would have to give complete amnesty, he would have had to free all political prisoners," said Castillo-Molleda, who views the pardons as only a partial measure.

Among those pardoned on Monday were 26 lawmakers, most of whom are in exile.

Maduro claimed the move was part of a national reconciliation but that "is very far from reality" because of the sheer number of remaining political prisoners, Salamanca said.

According to the Foro Penal NGO, almost half of the 110 people pardoned were political prisoners. The NGO says there are 336 people in the country detained for political reasons.

"It's a trap and we're not going to fall into it," said Guaido on Twitter, despite the pardon of his aide Roberto Marrero, who was detained in March 2019 and accused of terrorism.

Castilla-Molleda nonetheless feels it would be a mistake to boycott the election.

"It's not the wisest strategy because it means giving more power to Maduro, and there's no sense in that," he said.