Others, however, saw the move as simply a nod to the new reality in Venezuela, where Maduro has significantly strengthened his grip on power.
Maduro’s government has sought for months to cajole opposition candidates to run, seeing their participation as key to rebuilding international legitimacy. Opposition officials now say joining the elections could be “useful” for them, too — laying the groundwork for future presidential and legislative elections, as well as for seeking relief for the dual hunger and health-care crises that have gripped the nation for years.
Maduro’s government and the opposition have restarted a new round of talks, this time in Mexico City, aimed at breaking the nation’s long political impasse.
“Participating in the elections does not mean legitimizing them. It means that there is a de facto regime and we are demanding our rights,” said Henry Ramos Allup, leader of one of the four main opposition parties. “We are exhausting all resources to continue to carry out this fight.”
Several people familiar with the inner workings of the opposition conceded the decision came in part because rank-and-file opposition members were clamoring for an end to the stalemate that has left them jobless for years. Many saw no endgame to the opposition’s strategy or any real chance that Juan Guaidó, recognized by the United States and more than 50 other countries as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, will ever assume power.
Maduro, reacting to the announcement on national television late Tuesday, declared he was “going to sit down in my armchair, with popcorn, to watch Juan Guaidó vote on November 21st. I will applaud, because we made it, we included him in the democratic process again.”
In response, Guaidó tweeted: “Maduro, get serious. We all know that today there are no conditions or guarantees for a free and fair election. Those who decided to participate and those who did not, fight for liberty and democracy, to escape tragedy … We fight for conditions to escape the dictatorship.”
Guaidó’s domestic influence has steadily waned, while his international backing, particularly in Europe, has weakened. Many observers now view his role as the nominal leader of the opposition as contested and having a shelf life of perhaps a few more months. The significant concession to participate in the November elections was made near the start of the new talks in Mexico, giving Maduro what many see as an early victory at the negotiating table.
Notably, Guaidó was absent when other opposition leaders announced the decision at a Caracas news conference.
“I think the opposition is up against the wall,” said Russ Dallen, managing partner of Caracas Capital, a Florida-based consulting firm that follows Venezuela. “It’s not like Trump is going to send in troops anymore, or Biden, after what’s happening in Afghanistan.
“It’s not so much capitulation but a lack of options. They know they don’t have any choice, that they are negotiating from a position of weakness.”
Maduro has played a layered, patient game, dismantling the last democratically elected institution in the country, the opposition-controlled National Assembly, and reconstituting it with allies and more-friendly opponents. The leader, once isolated, has won new allies as the left wing has taken power in nearby countries such as Peru, as European resolve against him has diminished and as the Biden administration has been distracted by the coronavirus pandemic and Afghanistan.
Before the main opposition parties announced their decision, other political actors who also oppose Maduro had launched their own campaigns for 335 mayor’s offices and 23 governorships.
“This is not a sign of surrender but a return to sanity,” said Antonio Ecarri, an opposition politician not aligned with the major parties who is running for mayor of Caracas. “This is the only way to articulate a majority that is not happy with the regime.”
Critics, including hard-line opposition figure María Corina Machado, have called the decision to end the boycott “oxygen” for Maduro in exchange for the potential “crumbs” of winning a few local elections.
“Those who fell into the trap of November are not truly in opposition to the regime,” she said during a public event last month.
Questions remain about the extent to which any election in Venezuela could be free and fair. In 2017, the company that sold Venezuela its voting system warned that an election for the country’s new Constituent Assembly had been manipulated by at least 1 million votes. More broadly, Maduro’s government has harassed, detained and sharply limited media access to opposition candidates.
The Venezuelan government has invited representatives of the United Nations, the European Union and the U.S.-based Carter Center to observe the November elections, but the extent and mandate of any foreign observer mission remain unclear.
Elliott Abrams, President Donald Trump’s special representative to Venezuela, said the decision to field candidates amounted to a “realistic” approach for the opposition. The widespread sense in 2019 that Maduro would soon fall, he said, has now dissipated — partly, he said, because of continued support for Maduro from foreign powers including Russia, China and Iran.
Given that reality, Abrams said, “the opposition is looking at the 2024 presidential election as the moment of potential change. So in that context, it makes sense to get back involved with electoral politics and start rebuilding the parties.”
Nevertheless, the move marks a sharp departure from the opposition’s previous position that running in any Venezuelan elections would only legitimize Maduro’s government, and that it would be better to play a zero-sum game to force his ouster.
Among some opposition operatives, there was a sense of despair. They blamed some within their own ranks desperate to jump-start their own political careers. One operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, compared the opposition to Nicole Kidman’s character in “The Others.”
“We’re dead, politically,” the operative said. “We’re just the only ones who don’t know it.”
Faiola reported from Miami.