By Mayela Armas and Vivian Sequera
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelans voted on Sunday in a primary to choose a unity opposition candidate to face President Nicolas Maduro in his probable re-election bid next year, amid pledges by the United States to roll back sanctions relief if the government fails to lift bans preventing some opposition figures from holding office.
Thousands of voters lined up at polling places – including in private homes and on street corners – around the country.
There were about 3,000 polling locations nationwide, but some opened late and others had to be moved, according to human rights groups and voters themselves, causing confusion.
Many of the centers closed at 4 p.m. local time (2000 GMT), but Mildred Camero, part of the opposition commission organizing the primary, said others would remain open until the last person waiting had voted. She did not say how many would remain open.
Gasoline availability was limited in border states Tachira and Bolivar and public transport in the country’s interior was working irregularly, according to Reuters witnesses.
“On Friday we waited in three lines to be able to get gasoline for today and we couldn’t,” said housewife Melissa Diaz, 39, who arrived at her polling place in eastern Guyana City with a nearly empty tank. “We’ve lost a whole day, but even if we had to walk or cycle, we were coming to vote.”
Maria Corina Machado, 56, an industrial engineer and former lawmaker, has led her rivals by some 40 points in polls.
But Machado, like two former rivals who dropped out of the race, is barred from public office over her support of the sanctions on Maduro’s government and would not be able to register for the general election.
The opposition and government this week signed a deal on some election guarantees, including the presence of international observers. The accord allows each side to choose its candidate according to internal rules, but did not retract the election disqualifications.
The United States, which broadly eased Trump-era sanctions on Venezuelan oil and gas and bonds in response to the deal, has said Maduro has until the end of November to begin rescinding the bans and releasing political prisoners and “wrongfully detained” Americans.
Though five people were released, lead government negotiator Jorge Rodriguez confirmed this week that those with disqualifications cannot run in the 2024 contest, set for the second half of the year.
SOME SKEPTICAL OF DEAL
Some in the opposition have said they are skeptical Maduro will follow through on the deal.
The opposition, which says the disqualifications are unlawful, has been reticent to confirm what it would do if Machado wins the primary but is unable to compete in 2024.
Machado – who says her goal is to remove Maduro in a fair and peaceful vote – has said she could pressure the electoral authorities to let her register. Maduro has not announced that he will seek re-election, but many observers expect him to run.
Others have argued selecting a substitute candidate would be necessary, though whether the often-fractious opposition would accept Machado choosing a replacement remains to be seen.
“The process is flowing even with all the challenges,” said Machado after casting her ballot at a school in eastern Caracas. “Participation is overwhelming.”
All of Venezuela’s 20 million voters can participate in the primary, which is being organized without state help.
Ten candidates – including former lawmakers Carlos Prosperi and Delsa Solorzano – are competing.
“If you buy diapers you don’t buy food, so I buy food and not diapers,” said 20-year-old hairdresser Rosimar Gonzalez, who voted in central Maracay with her young son in her arms. “We have to change presidents. I think this is good, there are a lot of people.”
About 4 million of the 7.7 million Venezuelans migrants who have left their country are estimated to be of voting age and are able to vote at centers in 28 countries.
“I came to vote because I want to hug my grandchildren again, because I want to see my country on the road to freedom before I go,” said a teary Armando Cedeno, 100, who voted in the afternoon in Maracaibo. “I am confident that God will give me that gift.”
(Reporting by Mayela Armas and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Additional reporting by Mariela Nava in Maracaibo, Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, Mircely Guanipa in Maracay, Tibisay Romero in Valencia, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Rod Nickel, Andrea Ricci and Josie Kao)