Venezuela: Opposition leader freed in midst of election infighting

A violent protest as part of Venezuela's right-wing opposition's failed attempt to bring down the government earlier this year.

A high profile member of the ultra right-wing Popular Will (VP) party, Yon Goicoechea, was freed by Venezuelan authorities on November 4 after more than a year behind bars.

Goicoechea was arrested last August by national security forces for the alleged possession of explosive devices, just two days before an opposition march. 

Since being granted conditional release, Goicoechea has confirmed his candidacy for the mayoralty of the wealthy municipality of El Hatillo, despite his party calling for a boycott of upcoming elections. 

Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) announced last month that municipal elections to choose 335 mayors will take place on December 10.

The three largest opposition parties — Democratic Action (AD), First Justice (PJ) and VP — have refused to stand candidates and threatened to expel members that participate.

Nonetheless, several opposition figures have defied their parties’ leaders to stand in the upcoming municipal elections on tickets belonging to other opposition groups. The fourth-largest party of the coalition, A New Era (UNT), has also decided to field candidates. 

Goicoechea confirmed on November 7 that he will run on Progressive Advance’s ticket and said he believed it was a mistake for the opposition not to participate in the elections. He told the media he had “tactical differences” with the VP leadership. 

“I think it is a huge error for us not to go to municipal elections now, and then in February participate in the presidential elections,” he told Globovision. 

It is unknown whether Goicoechea will be expelled from VP or whether he has already left the party.

But VP parliamentarian Juan Andres Mejia said the party “rejected” Goicoechea’s candidacy, describing it as a government ploy to “divide and discredit” the opposition. 

The main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), suffered a heavy defeat in regional elections on October 15, managing to scrape just five governorships against the government’s 18.

The alliance was subsequently thrown into chaos when four out of its five elected governors for the AD party decided to flout the MUD leadership’s decision to boycott the pro-government National Constituent Assembly (ANC), instead accepting to swear in before it. 

UNT founder and former presidential candidate Manual Rosales also decided to rebel against the MUD’s decision by registering as a candidate for the state governorship of Zulia. 

Regional elections in the border state will be repeated on December 10, after the victorious PJ candidate, Juan Pablo Guanipa, refused to swear in before the ANC. 

Rosales' campaign for the Zulia governorship comes on the back of several tumultuous years for the politician, who was arrested in 2015 when he returned from self-imposed exile in Peru.

The former mayor of the capital of Zulia, Maracaibo, fled the Venezuelan justice system in 2009 after being charged with corruption and the misuse of public funds by the attorney general.

He was released in December 2016, while a ban on him holding political office was recently lifted by the Supreme Court.

Rosales told media earlier that he would not “abandon” the state, but his candidacy has since been attacked as “vile” by PJ and VP. They also accused Rosales of attempting to “trick” the people of Zulia and “play the government’s game”. 

The opposition coalition is facing its biggest crisis in years over the best way to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. While some opposition leaders prefer the ballot box, others want to force Maduro to abandon the presidency through violent street protest.

Between April and July, opposition leaders backed deadly anti-government demonstrations that claimed the lives of more than 125 people, but failed to unseat Maduro.

Though calm returned to Venezuela’s streets after the election of delegates to the ANC at the end of July, government spokespeople have warned that the opposition could reignite its regime change campaign against the elected president. 

Energy Minister Luis Motta Dominguez told the media on November 7 that assailants suspected to be allied to the opposition had set fire to the state electricity company CORPOLEC's regional headquarters in Tachira.

A government health clinic inside the compound had to be evacuated in response.

The minister described the arson attack as a “paramilitary and terrorist” act. He said he believed it was related to the MUD’s decision to boycott municipal elections. 

[Abridged from Venezuela Analysis.]