Meet Edmundo Gonzalez, the Candidate Challenging Maduro in Venezuela’s Elections

The day Edmundo González was plucked from obscurity and chosen to take on South America’s longest ruling authoritarian leader, technicians were busy making sure his home was not wiretapped.

“This was not in our plans,” his wife, Mercedes López de González, said in an interview that day in April in their apartment in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela.

Not long ago, Mr. González, 74, was a retired diplomat and grandfather of four with no political aspirations. He kept busy writing academic papers, speaking at conferences and taking his grandchildren to haircuts and music lessons. Few in his native Venezuela knew his name.

Now, many Venezuelans have placed their hopes in him to end years of repressive rule as he challenges President Nicolás Maduro, who has held power since 2013, in elections scheduled in late July.

Mr. González is suddenly back to having a full-time job.

“Twice a day I have to wipe the phone,” he said in a brief interview. “I delete almost 150 messages. I go to bed at 1 a.m., and by 4 a.m., I’m back on my feet and working again. I never imagined this.”

After years of rigged elections and political persecution, people in Venezuela yearning for a return to democracy have learned to expect disappointment.

A coalition of opposing parties, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, had been working to unite behind a single candidate who could pose a viable challenge to Mr. Maduro, but his government put up a series of obstacles.

In the end, Mr. González emerged as a candidate the government would not seek to block and who the opposition would support.

He accepted the role, but friends and colleagues say it is one he had never prepared for.

“Edmundo is not a man who’s ever had any political ambitions,” said Phil Gunson, a Venezuela expert for International Crisis Group in Caracas and a friend of Mr. González’s. “He’s someone who is doing what he sees as his duty.”

Some experts say his low profile could make it difficult for Mr. González to gain traction among voters, particularly outside Caracas, where information comes from government-controlled media that is unlikely to give his campaign much coverage.

Mr. Gonzalez, unlike other opposition leaders, has also not been openly critical of the Maduro government and its human rights record, which has raised concerns among some analysts who say holding officials accountable for abuses is crucial to restoring the rule of law to the country.

At home on the day he made it onto the ballot, Mr. González declined to speak at length about the election.

The youngest of three siblings, Mr. González was born to a family of modest means in the small city of La Victoria, about 50 miles west of Caracas. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father a shopkeeper who discouraged him from his childhood dream of being a diplomat, calling it “a profession for rich people,” according to the candidate’s daughter, Carolina González.

Undeterred, he went on to study international relations at the Central University of Venezuela.

In college he was a dedicated student, his classmate and longtime friend Imelda Cisneros recalled. It was a politically tumultuous time when a far-left communist ideology was becoming popular on campus and tensions were high.

But Mr. González became a student leader “with a very calm approach of reconciliation,” she said.

“He wanted to be a diplomat,” Ms. Cisneros added. “He was very clear about his objective from the very beginning.”

He joined the foreign service not long after he graduated in 1970, with postings in Belgium, El Salvador and the United States, where he earned a master’s degree in international affairs at American University in Washington.

He was later appointed ambassador to Algeria, and then to Argentina, where he was posted when Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1999. Mr. Chávez would go on to consolidate power under the banner of a socialist-inspired revolution.

Mr. González returned to Venezuela in 2002 and soon retired from the foreign service.

In 2008, he became active in a coalition of opposition parties called the Democratic Unity Roundtable, advising behind the scenes on matters of international relations.

He became president of the coalition’s board of directors in 2021, said Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, a former executive secretary of the coalition.

But most people, even in Venezuelans political circles, did not know he held that role until his presidential candidacy was announced because opposition leaders often face persecution.

That makes it a risky decision for Mr. González to step into the spotlight against an incumbent bent on retaining power.

“I’m nervous because we don’t know if something could happen to us,” Ms. López de González said.

Those who know Mr. González say mounting a presidential campaign is not something he would take on lightly.

“He is an extremely balanced man, calm, quite serious and above all sober,” said Ramón José Medina, who headed the Democratic Unity Roundtable until 2014 and has been a friend of Mr. González’s for decades.

Mr. Maduro signed an agreement with the opposition in October to take steps toward free and fair elections, and the United States temporarily lifted some severe economic sanctions as a gesture of good will.

Days later, a former national lawmaker, María Corina Machado, won a primary election with more than 90 percent of the vote, making her a significant threat to Mr. Maduro in a head-to-head matchup.

Since then, the Maduro government has thrown up roadblocks to prevent a serious challenger from making it onto the ballot.

First, the country’s top court disqualified Ms. Machado in January over what the judges claimed were financial irregularities that occurred when she was a national legislator — a common tactic used to keep viable competitors off the ballot.

Then last month, the government prevented an opposition coalition from putting forward another preferred candidate using technical electoral maneuvers just before the registration deadline.

Only one politician, Manuel Rosales, who was seen by political analysts as greenlit by Mr. Maduro, was allowed to register. It briefly seemed that the effort to field a unified candidate had been defeated.

But, in a surprise, the coalition announced that the national electoral authority had granted it an extension, paving the way for Mr. González to officially enter the race. Mr. Rosales stepped aside and threw his support behind Mr. González.

Mr. González’s career as a “consensus seeker” helped him to unite the opposition, Mr. Gunson said.

“He’s someone that is acceptable to a lot of different people,” he added. “And he doesn’t offend anybody.”

Those qualities also may make it more likely that the Maduro government would cede power to him if he were to win, said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, an expert on Venezuela for the Inter-American Dialogue, a research organization in Washington.

Mr. Maduro, experts said, might be willing to concede defeat if he were granted amnesty for human rights abuses and if his party were given a continuing role in the country’s political system.

On this front, Mr. González has been more conciliatory than other candidates. Ms. Machado has said that Mr. Maduro and members of his administration should be held criminally responsible for corruption and human rights abuses.

Mr. González has said in interviews that he is open to talking with the Maduro government to ensure a smooth transfer of power.

“His main challenge is going to be maintaining that balance between keeping the opposition in line behind a unified candidacy and making sure that his candidacy does not pose an unbearable threat to the regime,” Ms. Taraciuk Broner said. “And that’s a very fine line.”

One poll already shows him defeating Mr. Maduro, though the survey also shows that about one-third of respondents said they were not sure whom they would vote for and that roughly 20 percent said they would not vote for any candidate in the race.

Mr. Aveledo said he was hopeful that Mr. González could win over Venezuelans in the coming weeks.

“Finally, someone who speaks with serenity, with moderation, who thinks about problems and solutions, who speaks without shouting, without insulting,” he said. “Because the country is very tired of conflict.”

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