Venezuela’s hardline president Nicolás Maduro appears to be pulling off an impossible feat: strengthening his grip on power despite a dire coronavirus emergency and a devastated economy, which has reduced the once-wealthy oil producer to subsistence status.
Mr Maduro, a socialist whose 2018 election victory is widely considered to have been fraudulent, succeeded this week in provoking a major split in the democratic opposition over participation in forthcoming elections and widening a diplomatic divide between Washington and the EU.
The move has seriously undermined Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader on whom Washington had pinned all its hopes of unseating Mr Maduro. It has emerged that, without his knowledge, at least two members of his coalition had been conducting clandestine talks with the Maduro government about taking part in December’s congressional elections.
Mr Guaidó, strongly backed by the US, has insisted that the opposition will not take part in a vote which it regards as fraudulent. Minimum conditions for democracy do not exist, he argues, in a country where political parties are banned or taken over by the government, the press is muzzled and the election authorities are subject to political control.
But Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate, shattered the unity which had prevailed among Venezuela’s notoriously fractious opposition for almost two years on Wednesday, when he announced that he favoured participation. “We’re not going to leave the people without an option”, he said.
In a swipe at Mr Guaidó, Mr Capriles added: “We can’t keep playing at government on the internet” — a reference to Mr Guaidó’s attempts to run an interim government since declaring himself Venezuela’s rightful leader in January 2019. That move was backed by the US, the EU and most of Latin America, but has failed to unseat Mr Maduro.
“Of course, it hurts right now,” said Mr Guaidó at a news conference on Thursday. “But this is like when one member of a family decides to leave or distance themselves. It’s their own choice. But the family must stay united.”
Christopher Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House in London, said the Venezuelan opposition had “misunderstood and overplayed its hand repeatedly over the election issue”.
“While not closely similar, what we have witnessed in Belarus is a perfect indication of the importance of not ceding even corrupt elections to autocrats,” he added.
Making matters worse for the opposition, word came from Turkey — long a close Maduro ally — that Mr Capriles and Stalin González, Mr Guaidó’s top negotiator in Oslo-sponsored talks about the future of Venezuela, had been meeting the Maduro government secretly. These contacts were behind the government’s decision on Monday to pardon or release more than 100 political opponents.
“Guaidó has been stabbed in the back by two of his closest aides,” said a Venezuelan opposition source.
The US, which has been leading a “maximum pressure” campaign to topple Mr Maduro via ever-tighter economic sanctions, was quick to dismiss the Venezuelan gesture. “Conditions for free and fair elections do not exist in Venezuela and the release of a number of political prisoners does not change that,” said Mike Pompeo, secretary of state.
But the EU was less negative. Its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described the pardoning as “good news” and an essential precondition for “continuing to advance towards the organisation of free, inclusive and transparent elections”.
This statement, coupled with remarks by Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu this week that the EU had asked it to help mediate, rang alarm bells with some of the Venezuelan opposition. “Borrell is negotiating for Turkey to be the guarantor of our democratic rights. Turkey? Really?” the Venezuelan opposition source said.
Mr Cavusoglu claimed that the Venezuelan opposition and government were near to agreement. “We are happy about that, and we are happy to have played a part in that process,” he said. “Two days ago I spoke again with [Mr] Borrell about this and shared the information that we have and agreed that we would work together on this. God willing, we will continue to do what we can in order to carry out a democratic election.”
A source close to the EU played down Mr Cavusoglu’s role, saying
Turkey was not playing a big part in the bloc’s strategy towards
Mr Guaidó’s authority has already been diminished by a failed uprising he led last year and by a disastrously botched attempt at a military invasion of Venezuela by American mercenaries in May. (Mr Guaidó said he did not authorise the attempt). Opinion polls show support for him is evaporating; a recent Datanalisis poll gave him just 17 per cent approval, against 13 per cent for Mr Maduro.
Mr Guaidó now faces an impossible dilemma between participating in elections he is almost certain to lose or insisting on an increasingly unpopular boycott and dividing his coalition. Vanessa Neumann, Mr Guaidó’s envoy to the UK, says that all Venezuelan politicians should unite behind Mr Guaido’s demands for free and fair elections. “Participating in a political farce that does not give the people back the stolen election of 2018 . . . will only deepen the crisis for Venezuela and the suffering of its people,” she said.
But a senior diplomat familiar with the situation in Venezuela said those clinging to a boycott strategy would have to change their position sooner or later because it was doomed. “The Maduro government is clearly winning here,” he said. “It has been more proactive, while the opposition is seriously divided.”
Additional reporting by Gideon Long in Bogotá and Laura Pitel in Ankara