Venezuela’s highest court ruled on Friday that a top opposition leader cannot run for president, dealing a crippling blow to prospects for credible elections that the government had agreed to hold this year in exchange for the lifting of crippling U.S. economic sanctions.
The court’s decision bars the opposition figure, María Corina Machado, from taking part in an election for 15 years, upholding the Venezuelan government’s decision to exclude Ms. Machado over what it claimed were financial irregularities that occurred when she was a national legislator.
The move comes after Ms. Machado overwhelmingly won an opposition primary election for president that was held in October without official government support and in which more than 2.4 million Venezuelans voted. Analysts say Ms. Machado poses the biggest electoral threat to President Nicolás Maduro.
In a post on the social media platform X, Ms. Machado said on Friday that Mr. Maduro and “his criminal system chose the worst path for them: fraudulent elections.” She added, “What is NOT ending is our fight to conquer democracy through free and fair elections.”
The Biden administration has tried to coax Venezuela’s authoritarian government into holding elections by relaxing some of the sanctions that have decimated the country’s oil industry, a vital source of income.
In October, the Maduro government reached an agreement with the opposition on steps toward a presidential vote, including allowing opponents to choose a candidate to run in elections that are supposed to be held this year, though a date has yet to be set.
The Biden administration indicated that more sanctions could be lifted if the Maduro government allowed candidates who had been disqualified from participating in elections. And Venezuela did agree to allow candidates barred from running for office to appeal their exclusion to the country’s top court.
But Mr. Maduro’s government has also repeatedly undercut the opposition’s ability to mount a meaningful challenge.
The government has questioned the opposition primary’s legitimacy and has taken legal aim at its organizers.
The pressure has increased in recent days. Ms. Machado said that her campaign headquarters had been vandalized and that three of her campaign officials had been arrested.
The United States on Tuesday said it was “deeply concerned” by arrest orders and detentions against at least 33 Venezuelans, including opposition members, journalists and former members of the military, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia.
“We call for the end of politically motivated harassment, including attacks upon opposition campaign offices and all efforts to stifle the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people through fear and intimidation,” the statement said.
The State Department on Saturday called the Supreme Court’s decision inconsistent with the commitment the Maduro government made to hold a competitive presidential election.
“The United States is currently reviewing our Venezuela sanctions policy, based on this development and the recent political targeting of democratic opposition candidates and civil society,” Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement on Saturday.
Since Mr. Maduro took power in 2013, after the death of Hugo Chávez — the founder of the country’s socialist-inspired revolution — a combination of growing oppression, rampant corruption and sanctions has made life much harder for ordinary Venezuelans, and millions have left the country.
The United States released a close ally of Mr. Maduro last month in exchange for 10 Americans imprisoned in Venezuela as another step to try to improve relations.
Venezuela’s economic collapse and political repression have fueled an exodus that has contributed to a record number of migrants congregating at the southern U.S. border, turning migration into a major crisis as President Biden seeks re-election in November.
Experts said the court’s decision on Friday was not a surprise.
“The government was never going to let Machado run — her popularity makes her too much of a threat,” said Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow for Venezuela at the Atlantic Council, a research institution based in Washington.
It also presents a problem for the Biden administration, which will “face strong pressure from Congress to reverse, whether partially or completely, the sanctions relief it granted Maduro,” said Phil Gunson, an analyst with the International Crisis Group who lives in Caracas.
“As things stand, the likelihood of a semi-competitive election this year has clearly receded, but it is critical that the opposition maintain its insistence on the electoral route,” he added.
At the same time, he added, it puts Mr. Biden in a bind.
“The problem for Washington is that it’s essentially run out of ways to pressure Maduro,” Mr. Ramsey said. “How do you threaten a regime that’s endured years of crippling sanctions, multiple coup attempts and a failed mercenary invasion?”
The test, multiple analysts said, will be if the opposition is able to unite around another candidate.
“This is an opportunity for Venezuela’s famously divided democratic opposition to show its unity,” said Christopher Sabatini, a researcher for Latin America at Chatham House, an international affairs research group in London. “Can it rally behind a consensus candidate to ensure that democrats remain engaged in even corrupted democratic processes?”