In recent days, three major opposition figures have broken with Guaidó, the National Assembly president recognized by the United States and more than 50 other countries as Venezuela’s rightful leader. The most significant rebel: Henrique Capriles, who ran for the presidency against Maduro in 2013 and also against the late Hugo Chávez, founder of Venezuela’s socialist state, in 2012. On Wednesday, Capriles surprised both Guaidó and U.S. officials by appearing to issue a direct challenge to Guaidó’s leadership.
“There is a disconnect between the political class and the people,” Capriles said in a live broadcast on social media. “Unity for what? Unity is not a slogan. It needs to have a purpose.”
“I have raised the flag of unity,” he said.
Capriles, 48, has been barred by Maduro’s government from running for office. But he said he would support other candidates who run in the December elections. Guaidó has led an opposition boycott of those elections, saying the government cannot be trusted to hold a fair vote.
“We have jointly rejected participating in this fraud,” Guaidó said Thursday in a Facebook live session with James Story, the U.S. chargé d’affaires for Venezuela.
“We might feel disappointed and frustrated today for the decision that Henrique took yesterday,” he said. “We respect all leaders. We need to leave the doors open but we ratify our rejection to this fraud.”
Capriles for months has engaged in secretive talks with Maduro’s government, according to three people familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He has offered few details but said he had spoken directly with Turkish officials — top Maduro allies — about the December vote and acknowledged negotiating with Maduro’s government to free political prisoners.
Maduro’s government, meanwhile, has launched a charm offensive, one that observers say is intended to undermine efforts by the Trump administration to isolate him internationally. On Monday, Maduro pardoned 110 opposition politicians, including Guaidó’s jailed former chief of staff, Roberto Marrero. On Tuesday, Maduro’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, invited the European Union to send observers for the December elections for the National Assembly.
The majority of the opposition has boycotted the vote, citing fraud in the last two major elections, which Maduro used to consolidate power. In a letter to the E.U., Arreaza said the country would allow U.N. observers and insisted “all political parties” would get media coverage and access to audits of vote counts.
“All these guarantees are the product of an intense dialogue process,” Arreaza wrote.
U.S. officials are voicing alarm that the E.U. might be wavering on Maduro. Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative to Venezuela, said recent communications between E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, Capriles and former Guaidó ally Stalin Gonzalez appeared to be strengthening Maduro’s hand.
“We are concerned about the E.U. role,” Abrams told The Washington Post on Thursday. “We know that there have been contacts between Capriles, Gonzalez and Borrell, but we don’t know the full story.
“To us, the critical thing is to insist on fully free and fair elections. Earlier in the summer, the pressure from the E.U. was to reduce its demands for free and fair elections, to limit the conditions. I don’t think that’s an appropriate role for any democracy to play.”
Borrell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Last month, he said “weeks” of talks with Venezuela’s political actors led him to conclude “that conditions are not met, at this stage, for a transparent, inclusive, free and fair electoral process.”
In recent months, the pro-Maduro Supreme Court has stripped the heads of Venezuela’s three main opposition parties of their leadership titles and replaced them with more compliant politicians, whose fealties were allegedly bought with bribes. Maduro controls the electoral commission that in the past has validated election results despite evidence of fraud. And he did not pardon all of his opponents; most prominently, he excluded Leopoldo López, Guaidó’s mentor, who has sought sanctuary in the Spanish Embassy since last year.
Still, Borrell hailed the pardons as a positive step toward “free” elections.
“The release of a considerable number of political prisoners and deputies persecuted in Venezuela is good news and a sine qua non condition to continue advancing in the organization of free, inclusive and transparent elections,” he said in a statement.
Capriles and other opposition officials said privately they hope to follow the example of countries such as Belarus, where the opposition fielded candidates, the election was widely viewed as flawed, and the public rose in protest.
Critics say Capriles risks legitimizing elections Maduro’s government is likely to steal. They also say a fraudulent legislative election is less likely to spark the level of outrage seen after the presidential election in Belarus.
“I think it’s a risky move by Capriles, and I think he calculated that nothing was working, and boycotting wasn’t the answer and he was willing to try something else,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “But it’s not altogether clear that Maduro is prepared to agree to the conditions that would make this election serious.”
Capriles did not mention Guaidó by name during his broadcast Wednesday, but he pointedly accused him of springing “surprise after surprise” on the Venezuelan people, a reference to failed attempts to turn the military and senior socialists against Maduro and hire foreign mercenaries to intervene.
The rivalry smacks of the bitter divisions that undercut Venezuela’s opposition for years before Guaidó’s emergence as a unifying force in 2019.
Guaido’s claim to the presidency is based on his leadership of the National Assembly, seen as the last democratically elected institution in the country. If he’s replaced after the December elections, supporters fear he could lose domestic and international support. U.S. officials say they will continue to recognize him as Venezuela’s president no matter what happens in December.
Capriles’s break with Guaidó came days after another prominent opposition official, María Corina Machado, issued a public statement attacking him.
“The country gave you a task that you couldn’t or didn’t want to fulfill,” she wrote in a public letter after meeting with Guaidó over the weekend. “That task was limited to ending the regime.”
Concern is rising in the Venezuelan opposition that Capriles may be weaken Guaidó.
“Capriles seems to have a plan, and it’s a plan to take over the opposition,” said one senior opposition operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking. “The fear is that some people are going to jump ship and move toward him because they no longer believe Guaidó can get the job done.”