Victory behind bars? How imprisoning politicians in Venezuela could backfire.

Venezuela currently has 77 people imprisoned for political reasons. But in a show of defiance toward the government, two prisoners scored spots on the opposition ballot in upcoming National Assembly elections.

Arnulfo Franco/AP/File
Venezuelan residents in Panama protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, in Panama City, Wednesday, April 8, 2015. The signs they hold read in Spanish 'Free Ceballos' in reference to jailed Venezuelan opposition politician Daniel Ceballos, and 'Peace is the way.'

Venezuelan congressional candidate Daniel Ceballos wasn’t out corralling voters prior to Sunday’s primary election here. He didn’t brandish his youthful smile for photo-ops, shake hands, or kiss babies. Mr. Ceballos’s wife tweeted on Election Day that she hadn’t heard from her husband in 48 hours. In fact, no one had.

That’s because Ceballos, a 31-year-old former mayor, has been sitting in federal prison for the past 14 months, after refusing to help the federal government halt a wave of antigovernment protests that swept the country last year.

Ceballos isn’t the only candidate in this year’s National Assembly race to have seen the inside of a jail cell. He is joined on the opposition ballot by former student leader and current inmate Renzo Prieto, and another former mayor, Enzo Scarano, who was freed in February after spending 11 months behind bars.

The government accuses these men of rebellion and inciting violence, but their tactics may be creating some unexpected consequences. For years the ruling party in Venezuela has successfully shut down the opposition, and the coalition’s ranks have been historically splintered as a result. But by locking up their leaders, the ruling party may be giving opposition voters clear candidates to rally behind in upcoming mid-term elections.

The threat of massive opposition-led protests last year drove the regime to take repressive actions, says Carlos Ponce, director for Latin America programs at Freedom House. "In the short term, you could say that it worked," Mr. Ponce says. "In the long run, it has been the worst-case scenario for the government.”

An opposition rallying cry?

Ponce says that jailing popular politicians like Ceballos has damaged the government’s credibility at a time when Venezuela is suffering from a severe economic crisis. The government’s actions have also helped to raise the profiles of politicians like Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma. Mr. Lopez, a former mayor who heads one of the main opposition political blocs, gave himself up to authorities in February of last year after the government put out an arrest warrant for inciting protests that brought chaos to the streets and led to 43 deaths. Mr. Ledezma, the mayor of the capital Caracas, was hauled away this February after being accused of plotting to overthrow the government.

President Nicolas Maduro maintains that the jailings are needed in order to stop a US-backed conspiracy to overthrow his regime. Leaders like President Obama and others from around the world have called for the release of Lopez, as have multiple international NGOs. Now, Maduro faces a difficult choice.

“If they release these political prisoners, they [the former prisoners] will have even more public support,” says Ponce. “But if they keep them in jail, the government will be under more and more international pressure.”    

Inside the country, the subject of politically motivated justice has turned into a rallying cry for Venezuela’s civil society, says Alfredo Romero, executive director of the Caracas-based NGO Foro Penal.  Mr. Romero’s group has kept detailed records on last year’s protest-related arrests. The number of political prisoners in Venezuela went from just 13 at the end of 2013 to more than 100 by the end of last year, according to his figures. Today, 77 remain incarcerated.

That list includes six people jailed for tweeting political messages, and dozens of others for participating in public protests. In addition, Romero is tracking more than 1,400 cases that involve lesser penalties like travel restrictions and orders to appear before a judge.

The measures have had a chilling effect on political freedom, Romero says. “The primary motives are political persecution, intimidation, and to create fear in the population,” he says.

These issues will play a role in the campaign, most of all to get out the vote and motivate opposition ranks, says Luis Vicente Leon, president of the local polling firm Datanalisis. Candidates like Ceballos and Prieto will not only be campaigning for office, but for their freedom: Venezuelan law grants federal politicians immunity while they serve office.

Patricia de Ceballos, the candidate's wife, drove home this message in a pre-election speech, calling the ballot box the "key to his freedom."

“This is their special motivation that will be very useful,” Mr. Leon says. Yet, despite Maduro's low approval ratings of just 27.4 percent, Leon sees a difficult path ahead for the opposition.

“They have friction and infighting. They don’t have a clear leader. They don’t have a unified message,” he says. “They don’t have a story that inspires the country.”

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