- Title: Hardline party on front line of Venezuelan political war
- Date: 23rd January 2017
- Summary: CARACAS, VENEZUELA (FILE) (REUTERS) GENERAL VIEW OF CROWD GATHERED AS LOPEZ IS ARRESTED LOPEZ, ARRESTED, SHOUTING INTO MEGAPHONE TO CROWD
- Embargoed: 6th February 2017 18:52
- Keywords: politics Venezuela Maduro opposition
- Location: CARACAS, VENEZUELA
- City: CARACAS, VENEZUELA
- Country: Venezuela
- Topics: Government/Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA00860AY91F
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: It's been a tough few years for one Venezuela's leading opposition parties, known as "Popular Will".
With the party's founder jailed and party members believing they are facing a regular threat of imprisonment, Popular Will finds itself on the front line of Venezuela's political war.
Visitors to the headquarters of Popular Will party are greeted by large photos of global resistance heroes from Nelson Mandela to Mahatma Gandhi.
Facing them is a life-size cardboard cutout of imprisoned party founder Leopoldo Lopez, fist raised in defiance.
The intended message is clear: like other revered opponents of repression, Popular Will is leading the fight against tyranny in socialist-ruled Venezuela, and suffering the most for that.
President Nicolas Maduro, however, has a different narrative: the party, launched in a provincial sports stadium in 2009, is a well-financed puppet of U.S. policy harbouring violent coup-plotters intent on bringing him down.
Even some more moderate allies in the opposition coalition are sceptical of Popular Will, viewing its confrontational street tactics, from hunger-strikes to marches, as hotheaded.
Maduro this month created a new unit, the "Anti-Coup Commando", which has the orange-branded party in its sights.
In its first few days, the unit arrested four party members.
A local substitute lawmaker and his girlfriend visiting from abroad were stopped at a roadblock and accused of carrying arms, which the party says were planted on them, while two other regional activists were also rounded up for alleged coup plans.
That took to 13 the number of party activists behind bars, the largest of any opposition group, in what critics say is a wave of repression intended to keep Maduro in power despite his unpopularity and a brutal economic crisis.
Despairing of last year's failure to bring about a referendum to recall Maduro and believing it is up against a dictatorship, the party is now advocating civil disobedience while other opposition parties still push for a new vote.
"We can't continue to remain under the illusion of a false institutionality, in which, in theory, the government will respect the constitution and that elections are going to take place to elect governors and mayors and then president. The only way we can manage to make sure the constitution is respected is by presiding over a popular movement which has strength and determination and non-violent discipline and the logic of facing a dictatorship to make things more difficult for the government," said Freddy Guevara, 30, an ex-student leader who leads Popular Will in the absence of Lopez.
Appetite for Gandhi-like civil disobedience within the opposition coalition - where Popular Will is the third party by number of lawmakers - appears lukewarm however.
The party commands strong support among young opposition supporters who see it as more courageous than others.
But its 2014 "Exit" campaign - when protests landed Lopez in jail, sparked violence killing 43 people and allowed Maduro to unite factions against a common enemy - alienated opposition moderates and failed to rally the poor.
New protests last year - with wider opposition support - were just gaining momentum when the coalition controversially entered a dialogue with the government.
The rallies stopped, and the talks, which Popular Will had declined to participate in, soon failed.
Among the two dozen or so opposition groups in the anti-Maduro coalition, Popular Will has the slickest operation, with well-oiled publicity channels, plenty of powerful friends abroad and a telegenic face in Lopez's wife Lilian Tintori, a former kitesurf champion turned rights activist.
"At the present time Popular Will is the party of Leopoldo Lopez, my husband, and is the most persecuted party in the country, there are 272 cases of persecution. These are cases of imprisonment, torture, persecution, harassment," Tintori told Reuters.
Maduro, 54, a former bus driver and foreign minister, narrowly won election after the 2013 death of his mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez. But his ratings have plummeted amid the OPEC nation's three-year recession.
"State terrorism is what we live, they do state terrorism because they (the government) use persecution to stay in power, they use prisoners and prey on people as a method of torture," added Tintori.
According to rights groups, the government holds more than 100 political prisoners - up from 11 at the end of Chavez's rule - though officials say all are in jail legitimately for crimes.
Venezuela's next presidential election is due at the end of 2018, but Popular Will fears Maduro will tilt the playing field by outlawing their party, and keeping Lopez - a potential presidential candidate - in jail.
Even freed political prisoners say their moments are restricted. Gilberto Sojo, an activist from a poor area of Caracas, was released last month after two years' imprisonment on charges of plotting to bomb a court to free Lopez. However, he still has to appear in court every two weeks.
"I am presenting myself [in court] every 15 days and I am banned from leaving the country and what I can tell my colleagues is that this can happen to anyone," said Sojo.
Sojo, is a former supporter of the ruling Socialists who does grassroots social work for Popular Will in his San Agustin neighbourhood.
Another possible opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, of the larger Justice First Party, could also be taken out of the running if authorities push corruption allegations against him. Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in 2013 and has a long-running rivalry with Lopez, says the allegations are made up.
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