Corina Yoris , an 80-year-old grandmother of seven, never held a public post or campaigned for office.

But Yoris, a widow and grandmother to seven children, has been plucked out of her quiet life in academia—one of scholarly tomes on philosophy and classes on Venezuela’s tumultuous history—to challenge the country’s strongman in July’s presidential election . That is, if she isn’t first banned from participating, as the regime and its supporters are threatening.

“It’s totally surreal because I’ve dedicated my life to academia, I’ve dedicated my life to the world of the university,” Yoris told The Wall Street Journal Sunday. “Aspirations of becoming president of the republic have never passed through my head. Never. ”

But with Maria Corina Machado , the opposition politician that Venezuelan voters chose to challenge Nicolás Maduro , banned from office, 10 opposition parties supported Yoris as the candidate to run against the regime. The selection of Yoris—announced by Machado on Friday, surprising much of the country and the opposition’s international backers—is seen by many analysts as a masterstroke.

Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado embraces Corina Yoris Villasana whom she nominated to replace her as a presidential candidate, during a press conference, in Caracas, Venezuela, March 22, 2024. REUTERS/Gaby Oraa

“She’s a philosopher, she’s a historian,” said Phil Gunson , a Briton who has lived in Venezuela for 25 years and researches the country’s politics for the global nonprofit International Crisis Group. “She’s a student of advanced logic. She has an incredible brain. And she’s rather engaging and amusing and likable. Everyone speaks very highly of her ethical standing.”

She also can relate to Venezuelans because she’s a widow and the mother of three that now live in the U.S. and Britain, where they are raising their children. That makes Yoris highly representative of those left behind in Venezuela—countless grandparents and parents who have seen their children and grandchildren flee the country as it descended into oppression and economic calamity.

Like other elderly Venezuelans left behind, Yoris receives a measly pension rendered by galloping inflation to the equivalent of $3.50. Though she works as a consultant and teaches classes, Yoris said she survives on the remittances her children send home. A colleague has to send her medication from abroad because the pills aren’t available in Venezuela.

“I’m representative of a population that had suffered what I’m suffering, me personally,” said Yoris, as her German shepherd, Odin, barked in the background at her home. “I’ve met and seen my grandchildren grow up on social media, through Zoom, in video calls. That’s very painful, very sad. They broke the ties that families had.”

Nearly eight million Venezuelans have emigrated in Maduro’s 11-year reign, most settling in Latin America, though hundreds of thousands are now in the U.S. The opposition has warned that another six-year term for Maduro would trigger another large exodus, meaning even more young people fleeing and leaving older Venezuelans behind .

“The life of a senior here is a life of loneliness,” said 83-year-old entrepreneur Orencio Mariñas , whose only son and grandson moved to Colombia and now help support him.

After immigrating to Venezuela from Spain in the late 1950s, Mariñas said he started seven companies during the country’s oil-driven economic boom. He has in recent years watched as one property was expropriated. He has had to close down the others.

Mariñas said he knows little about Yoris, but trusts her because of her alliance with Machado. If Yoris wins, he hopes she will step aside for Machado, whom he sees as the best option for economic and political change.

“I hope that my son will be able to move back one day and spend the rest of the time I have on this earth together,” he said. “It’s a dream I’m still holding on to, and frankly, it’s what is keeping me alive.”

Daisy Serrano , 60, has daughters in Chile and Peru, a son in Colombia and grandchildren spread among the three. In Venezuela, Serrano cares for the 4-year-old son of the daughter who is in Chile.

“It’s so sad that your grandchildren have to leave the country because of the situation that we have,” said Serrano, who said she lives on the cash transfers her relatives send home. “Sometimes, I’m so sad, but I ask God to give me the strength to keep on living.”

Serrano said Yoris is like her and “should know what grandmothers here feel.” She also hopes that a new government will stabilize Venezuela and prompt exiles, like those in her family, to return.

“We could all live in a Venezuela like the one we had many years ago,” Serrano said.

Though respondents to a poll carried out between Feb. 20 and March 3 by the American company ClearPath Strategies hadn’t heard of Yoris, the results clearly showed that Venezuelans want change—reflecting previous polls by other companies. In the past decade, the economy contracted 80% as oil output fell precipitously, and inflation at one point hit 2 million percent .

The poll showed that an opposition candidate backed by Machado would win 49% to 27% for Maduro. Even a candidate who doesn’t have her support would squeak out victory over Maduro, 35% to 27%, the poll shows. And though Maduro’s regime has jailed political activists—including seven of Machado’s campaign workers—the poll shows that 76% of opposition and undecided voters want a chance to cast a ballot.

Guillermo Bolinaga , a Venezuelan with the Opportunitas Advisors political-risk firm in Miami, said that the latest developments amount to “a perfect storm for Maduro.”

“His popularity is at the lowest level in the history of the Chavista movement, with negativity ratings above 70%,” Bolinaga said, referring to the movement Maduro leads that was founded by the late Hugo Chávez . “And the turnout is increasing despite the obstacles. People are not afraid to vote.”

Maduro on Monday made his candidacy official and told the opposition, “There will be elections with or without you,” suggesting his regime wouldn’t accept the opposition’s candidate of choice. He announced a new state program for seniors and pointed to nine other candidates his government is allowing to run—who include a stand-up comedian, a pastor and a former political prisoner held by the regime, all of whom have little support in polls.

“This is a full democracy,” Maduro said as his aides cheered him at the National Electoral Council.

By contrast, Yoris said military checkpoints in the capital stopped her team from filing her candidacy in person at the council on Monday, the deadline for registering.  She said she has been blocked from the council’s digital platform, too.

By Monday afternoon, it remained unclear how Yoris would formalize her candidacy.

If she is able to run, major obstacles remain, with analysts and opposition activists concerned that electoral authorities could  rig the vote  as they have been  accused of doing in the past . In addition, the Maduro regime has shown little interest in providing a way for millions of voting-age Venezuelan émigrés to cast ballots.

Iris Varela , a regime official close to Maduro, on Sunday asserted in a post on X that Yoris wouldn’t be allowed to run because she has both Venezuelan and Uruguayan citizenship. Yoris says she was born and raised in Caracas and holds no other nationalities. Government supporters also claim that Yoris’s criticism of Maduro amounts to inviting foreign intervention, a justification made in the past for some arrests.

‘I’m representative of a population that had suffered what I’m suffering,’ said Corina Yoris. PHOTO: ADRIANA LOUREIRO FERNANDEZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Analysts and political activists say Yoris was vetted carefully so the regime couldn’t find a pretext to bar her. But they explain that the electoral board or courts, both controlled by the executive, could clearly sideline her as they have several opposition candidates who polls show would have beaten Maduro handily in recent years.

“If the government is going to block you from standing (for election), there’s not a lot you can do,” said Gunson of the Crisis Group, noting that another option is running a candidate who would clearly lose.

Yoris said she isn’t afraid to campaign or engage with reporters.

“I have a lot of facility with language,” she said. “I’m going to do it, alongside Maria Corina .”

Asked what she as president would do for Venezuela, she recalled the democratic years when the country, though flawed in many ways, appealed to immigrants escaping Latin American dictatorships and hardship in southern Europe. “I want to give Venezuela what Venezuela has given me,” she said. “I could study in this country. I could educate my children in this country. I could do all manner of things in this country.”

While not a politician, Yoris said she has taught classes on logic and such esoteric disciplines as the philosophy of argumentation, where she has delved into the concepts of  Chaïm Perelman , a Belgian who was one of the 20th century’s most renowned argumentation theorists, and British philosopher Stephen Toulmin . Two years ago, she was named by civil-society groups to serve on an opposition-led commission, which was responsible for organizing the primary elections last year that Machado won by a wide margin.

Corina Yoris said she hadn’t been able to register herself as a candidate online, and the government hadn’t provided a reason. PHOTO: ADRIANA LOUREIRO FERNANDEZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

But Yoris isn’t only about working with the opposition or delving into her extensive library in her house in the luxuriant mountains outside Caracas.

She so loves the Real Madrid soccer club that she live-tweets its matches on X.

“I’m totally for Madrid, and people laugh a lot about this,” said Yoris, who during a recent match tweeted out: “This is a scandal! The referee ends the game and takes a goal away from Real Madrid.”

And though she fires off messages about blackouts and the work of Albert Camus , she also takes photos of the fog-covered hills, flowers and fruit stands overflowing with Venezuela’s bounty. She explained that her desire is to show beauty. “It’s a message of joy because we’ve been submitted to a very ugly dark cloud,” she said. “So I try to send out a message of optimism, and I take photographs of my surroundings.”

Write to Juan Forero at and Kejal Vyas at