In its brief and intense existence as an opposition political party in Venezuela, Voluntad Popular has amassed a grim record. Founded in 2009, the party has nine political leaders in jail, four with outstanding arrest warrants and four who have gone into exile amid threats.
Ever since the party’s leader and presidential candidate, Leopoldo López, was imprisoned in 2014 and sentenced to 13 years for conspiracy, arson and inciting violence — in a case that his lawyers and human rights groups say was deeply flawed —Voluntad Popular has been under siege.
Not a week seems to go by when one of its members isn’t accused of terrorism or plotting a coup. The administration of President Nicolás Maduro has repeatedly said Voluntad Popular, which translates roughly to The People’s Will, should be dissolved.
“You have to go back to the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez [1952-1958] to find this number of prisoners, particularly from the same political organization,” said Carlos Vecchio, Voluntad Popular’s national political coordinator, who fled to Miami in 2014 as he faced the same charges as López. “This is a troubling phase for our political party and the country.”
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It’s easy to see why Voluntad Popular might be singled out. The organization was among the first to make the ouster of Maduro its flagship issue, and it rallied disruptive national protests in 2014 under the provocative banner La Salida, or The Exit, that left more than 40 dead on both sides of the political divide.
By silencing one of the most outspoken organizations inside the MUD opposition coalition, the administration is trying to muzzle the entire movement, Vecchio said.
“The government is using us to try to send a message and instill fear and terror,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘Whoever speaks up is going to jail,’ and through that they’re hoping to fracture the unity coalition.”
The party is a go-to administration boogeyman. In the days leading up to a massive opposition protest in Caracas on Sept. 1, Maduro called Voluntad Popular the “military arm” of a U.S. plot to topple his administration.
“Voluntad Popular … is the party of a violent coup, which is planning to overthrow the state,” Maduro told supporters. He also reiterated claims that the jailed “monster,” López, is a CIA operative.
As part of its pre-demonstration crackdown, the administration re-imprisoned Daniel Ceballos, a Voluntad Popular member and former mayor of San Cristóbal, a large city in western Venezuela and an opposition hotspot. Ceballos has been in custody since 2014 and under house arrest since 2015, but was returned to prison last month in the dead of night in an action denounced by the U.S. government and human rights groups.
In the following days, the government also arrested Voluntad Popular political activist Yon Goicoechea, a U.S. trained lawyer and prominent student activist, on charges of possessing bomb-making material. Those accusations, his family and lawyers say, are absurd.
A history of hassle
Last week, David Smolansky, the 31-year-old mayor of El Hatillo, which is part of greater Caracas, was summoned to the headquarters of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, or SEBIN, after he allegedly lied on social media about the conditions of Goicoechea’s detention.
Speaking from his office, Smolansky said the SEBIN had no legal right to open an investigation (that’s up to the attorney general’s office), and so he ignored the summons.
“It looked like a trap to me,” he said. “Why would I walk into the Helicoide [SEBIN headquarters] where they already have a number of political prisoners?”
Smolanksy’s paranoia comes from experience. Since he became politically active 10 years ago, he claims he has been briefly kidnapped and seen his social media accounts hacked seven times by suspected government operatives. He also has been accused of being a terrorist and arms-dealer, and even has seen his Jewish ancestry attacked by public officials.
He recently woke up to find someone had spray-painted the words, “Zionist piece of s--- and an imperialist lapdog,” on his house.
Smolansky said his party is being targeted because it’s a real political threat. Voluntad Popular has made inroads with the urban poor who have been the base for the foundation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV. In addition, polls continue to show López is one of the country’s most popular politicians even in jail. The latest survey by Datanálisis found he has approval ratings of 49 percent, versus Maduro’s 21 percent.
During congressional elections last year, the party won 14 seats, making it the fifth largest party. But its deputies range from an ex-convict to a Harvard graduate, Smolanksy said.
“The most valuable thing we have is our diversity, because we look like Venezuela,” he said. “We’ve been successful … so now they’re trying to wipe us off the political map.”
Voluntad Popular isn’t the only party feeling the heat. Members of other opposition groups have also been hounded and jailed. And Smolansky said that at least 30 other opposition mayors are being investigated.
The party’s roots can be traced to student protests in 2007 against the closing of RCTV television station. Those marches helped forge a new batch of student leaders who have risen through the political ranks, including Goicoechea and Smolansky.
“That irreverence that we had as students has never left us,” said Francine Howard, 31, one of the party’s founders. “And we’ve been firm in our actions and values even as we’ve faced a dictatorial government that is trying to break us in different ways.”
As the opposition continues to hold protests demanding Maduro’s ouster, the administration is likely to ratchet up the pressure on Voluntad Popular. Party leaders say there’s a lawsuit working its way through the high court that could force the party to disband.
Amid the threat, the opposition has closed ranks around its sometimes difficult ally.
“The attacks on David [Smolanksy] and other persecuted companions, and the attempt to criminalize, foremost, Voluntad Popular but also other opposition parties, aren’t going to work,” Jesús Torrealba, the head of the opposition coalition, said in a statement last week. “Today, there’s an entire nation that’s standing up to reject this violent, corrupt and inefficient regime.”
Smolansky said that even those who aren’t members of the party see the government’s attack as a worrisome precedent.
“In Venezuela, everybody who thinks differently has a number,” he said. “We just never know when our number will come up and the guillotine will fall.”