There Once Was a Party: Voluntad Popular

Up until not long ago, Voluntad Popular was considered by chavismo and the Venezuelan opposition to be the “radical party”; but after an insane political cycle and fierce persecution we take a look at where the party stands right now

On April 30th, 2019, a tweet by Freddy Guevara abruptly woke up thousands of Venezuelans. “The time has come, Venezuela: we have to heed the call by our President Juan Guaidó and our Armed Forces! To the streets all across Venezuela to consolidate freedom!” tweeted the former representative and national coordinator of Voluntad Popular (VP). By that time, at 6:00 a.m., a photo of Guaidó, Leopoldo López, and members of their party surrounded by a handful of soldiers at the gates of the army base La Carlota in Caracas was all over social media. It was a call for insurrection against the Maduro regime.

But we all know how it ended: the budding military movement failed in a matter of hours and Maduro stayed in power. In a broadcast that same evening, the chavista leader made one of his usual speeches, where he plays the role of president, prosecutor, and judge at the same time: “Who rubs their hands with these types of situations? Who’s endorsing them?” he asked. “Undoubtedly, those who were present: representatives and contributors of the far right, of a terrorist party called Voluntad Popular.” 

The fact that Maduro defined Leopoldo López’s party in such a way wasn’t only the result of the failed attempt to remove him by force. In fact, these types of adjectives from chavismo—and the opposition in general—have been frequent since it was founded in 2009. Made up mostly by the youngsters from the student movement that gave Hugo Chávez his first electoral defeat in the constitutional referendum in 2007, VP has had to deal with the “radical party” label or the party which threatens the—non-existent—democratic stability in the country.

“Why did Chávez and then Maduro consider the party to be a threat? Because since its inception, Voluntad Popular made it a point to grow by means of confronting chavismo,” political scientist Enderson Sequera believes.

However, ever since April 30th, 2019, and even before that, since the protests where the party was deeply involved in 2017 and 2014, VP has shifted the confrontation agenda Sequera mentions. The best example is a statement by Freddy Guevara, on August 31st, 2021, after leaving El Helicoide, where he was imprisoned since July 12th, after being detained in broad daylight on a highway in Caracas:

“Voluntad Popular accepts that many of the premises we used to have, with which we looked for a total and immediate shift in the system, a military fracture, aren’t viable,” Guevara spoke in a press conference. “I’m absolutely convinced that we have to go through a cohabitation period among political forces. The time for believing that one political force can eliminate the other one is over.” 

So, how was it that a party once considered “radical” in and out of the opposition, went on to look for “cohabitation” among political forces?

“I don’t think it was about a moment, or a day when change came along. It was just that an important truth was imposed: you can’t get rid of an authoritarian regime how one wishes or desires, but how one can,” Sequera answers. “The reduced options took Voluntad Popular to lean in the direction of realism over conviction. Sometimes, in a very clumsy way. For instance, its position on the 2021 elections: no one in the country was sure on whether they called for people to vote or not. These contradictions weaken credibility.” 

To understand VP’s change, then, it’s necessary to through the long history of political persecution they’ve had to face, like no other opposing political party in recent times in Venezuela, and analyze how they have stubbornly challenged, once and again, chavismo’s muscle, even when it seemed there wasn’t a clear strategy in the face of an unequal system. A trial and error that almost always ended in error and in many aspects, has made them mimic the parties that they always aspired to differentiate themselves from.

Interrupted Renewal

In 2009, after quitting Primero Justicia, the party that claimed to be a renewal of Venezuelan politics, and a stint in Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT), Leopoldo López founded Voluntad Popular. His time in PJ has left behind a battle between Julio Borges and Henrique Capriles to see who would have control over the party. And facing the lack of democracy within the party, he justified his exit from PJ.

López gave VP his own mark. For starters, he defined it as a “progressive” party, a clear difference with PJ, which thought of itself as “centrist humanist” and had its base on Copei’s Christian-democratic views. On the other hand, it promised to set the stage for an inclusive and participative party, where its campaigners would choose their leaders.

“Voluntad Popular was born aspiring to be like Ciudadanos in Spain: a fresh, young, and modern party, which set it aside from traditional political parties,” Sequera explains. “But down the road, political conflict took them to play a role more like Acción Democrática did when confronting and facing Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s dictatorship.” Meaning: declare itself as insubordinate, reject electoral events, and do politics in hiding or in exile.

Even while there’s still a lot of people in the country and abroad who considered Venezuela a democracy, López and his party had been expelled from the democratic game by Chávez’s government. Although chavismo allowed VP to formalize their party status, López was declared ineligible by the Venezuelan comptroller in August 2008 for two cases of alleged mishandling of resources during his administration as mayor of Chacao. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights asked to revoke the order, but chavismo paid no attention and removed López from the electoral path. He was favored to be the next metropolitan mayor of Caracas, one of chavismo’s electoral strongholds.

But that was just the beginning of the persecution against López, who in 2014 was taken to a military prison after calling for protests that year against Maduro’s government. In 2017, he was granted house arrest and in 2019, after the failed coup, he took refuge at the residence of the Spanish ambassador in Caracas. In 2020, he escaped to Spain, where he currently resides.

Members of his party have had a similar fate: according to VP estimates, at least 90% of its main leaders have been or continue to be in prison (such as Roland Carreño), or are in exile under the threat of being detained: Freddy Guevara, Carlos Vecchio, Lester Toledo, David Smolansky, among others. That’s why, in 2019, when it was VP’s turn to take the presidency of the National Assembly and create the caretaker government, they had to choose an unknown Juan Guaidó.

Besides, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) bombarded the party from the inside in 2020, by naming a parallel board, which controls the party’s symbols and spot on the ballot.

The persecution, therefore, is fundamental to understanding the inner workings of VP. “When you leave the country, your ability to act is exponentially diminished. You are left disjointed,” said a source from the party who asked to remain anonymous. “Many of the mistakes, errors, and voids of Voluntad Popular happened because of that situation.” 

For example, their inability to renew the party, the source said. Eleven years went by before Voluntad Popular was able to have internal elections. In the meantime, hundreds of militants quit, arguing the exact same thing López said about Primero Justicia: lack of internal democracy. And when they did, at the end of July this year, most of the ones who were already there were ratified, creating a parallel structure to guarantee the power quotas for the leaders who are abroad.

“We just can’t manufacture clones or leaders. Where are we going to get them from?” said the party member in an interview before the internal elections. “There are valuable people who can join us and maybe they weren’t included in a national or regional team. Now, in terms of the country, these country-wide leaderships can’t be made in one day.” 

But Sequera adds that, just like in other parties, Voluntad Popular has had a lack of clear rules when it comes to its internal democracy. “Just like many leaders of his generation, Leopoldo López has had to deal with the complex task of maintaining a balance between his legitimate personal aspirations, keeping the internal democracy of his party and, at the same time, contributing to the democratization cause in Venezuela,” says the political scientist. “There’s no doubt that in certain moments decisions have been made and imposed within the party, no matter what the majority said”.

On how inclusive is the decision making in VP, the party source claims that López is open to listening to the opinions of his party members and promoting debates, but when it comes to the more crucial decisions, the campaigners have been voiceless. Decisions like creating a parallel president in 2019, although he believes it was the correct strategy at the time.

However, the political reality in Venezuela begins to gain on the strategic vision of López in exile. Before the local elections in 2021, while López was lobbying against participating in them from Spain, the bases of VP were able to muscle their way in favor of voting and promoting candidates. “That’s where the differences between those in exile and those who are in the country begin to show,” the activist says.

And while López hasn’t declared his position on the presidential elections to be held supposedly in 2024, the party is already working on participating in the opposition’s primaries, with Juan Guaidó as their candidate.

Breaking the Establishment

In August 2011, when Voluntad Popular entered the coalition of opposition parties known as the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), its leaders claimed to propose “innovative ideas” which “clashed against the traditional political establishment”: primary elections, single voting card, unified campaign, and one programmed proposal. But those weren’t the ideas that made VP clash against traditional or newer political parties, such as PJ and Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT).

The relationship between VP and MUD leaders was never the best. The reason was that, just like with chavismo, within the opposing coalition they were always creating tensions, especially after the 2013 presidential elections, where Maduro beat Henrique Capriles by a very narrow margin. López, along with María Corina Machado and Antonio Ledezma, never acknowledged the result announced by the CNE.

“In that moment there was a division which left a mark in Venezuelan politics in the following years: the drift between Capriles and López,” Sequera says. “Capriles took a more moderate road and focused on criticizing chavismo’s inefficiencies; while López understood that they had to face the ever more authoritarian features of the chavismo, with Maduro at the helm. That’s when La Salida (The Exit) was born (the name given to the protests of 2014 against Maduro, alluding to his exit from power).

The political scientist believes that it was their main feat as a party, because it changed the framework of the political conflict in Venezuela: “After 2014, the country understood that we weren’t facing an inefficient government, but an increasingly authoritarian regime willing to kill, torture, and repress to stay in power”.

With confrontation as their flag, the other parties not only echoed the label given of “radical party” that the chavismo has placed on VP, but it led them to being a source of contention within the MUD.

“I have no doubt that there are parties within the opposition who would have preferred to maintain the political game by just denouncing the inefficiency and corruption of the government”, Sequera believes. “These parties were shielded by moderation so as to avoid facing the competitive authoritarianism of Chávez and the hegemonic authoritarianism of Maduro. These are the parties that labeled, curiously coinciding with chavismo, Voluntad Popular as a radical party”.

In 2014, for example, the then executive coordinator for the MUD, Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, quit the position after denouncing a “devious and vicious” campaign against the unity and his credibility as a leader. “It began in the laboratories of the arrogant power, but it didn’t stay there, the stupidity was embraced by power lechery”, Aveledo wrote in his resignation letter. “At the source or at the outlet, unitary beaches have been moistened by those polluted waters”. The message seemed to be directed at, among other people, López and VP, who had questioned the low effectiveness of the MUD’s ruling leadership instead of having a much more aggressive stance against the Venezuelan government.

In 2016, with Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba as MUD coordinator, VP was the only party -along with Vente, led by María Corina Machado-, who didn’t participate in the negotiations with the chavismo for considering that they didn’t provide guarantees. Unable to reach agreements, and without achieving the ousting of Maduro’s regime through protests, Voluntad Popular wouldn’t reject participating in the following negotiating table, even though none have had any success. But in that regard, neither VP or any of the opposition parties were at fault, Sequera says: “The main obstacle to reach political agreements has been the chavismo.” 

The confrontation with the rest of the parties has reached its highest point with the continuity of Guaidó’s interim government. While PJ, AD, and UNT demand a reality check, in terms of acknowledging that the presidency is run by Maduro, in VP they still sail through the incoherence of having a parallel presidency and dealing with the obvious fact of Maduro’s power.

“The caretaker government is a strategy which refuses to die, and it won’t die in the short term, and it has put the party in a straightjacket which prevents the party from deploying new or different policies,” the VP campaigner who wishes to remain anonymous says.

Getting in the Game

La Salida, the 2017 protests, the caretaker government, and the coup attempt in 2019 have in common that they didn’t achieve the end goal of ousting Maduro and were strategies promoted, for the most part, by Voluntad Popular. Having tripped over the same stone over and over again, the party is starting to admit their mistakes, without necessarily meaning that they regret testing their theories.

“How were we to know if they were right or not? We had to act, because the politician doesn’t get to only think and philosophize,” the campaigner says. “While it hasn’t been done collectively, some of us reflect individually on the topic. The thing is that, for that to transcend and take a message across the country about that reflection, which has to do with the fact that if we stop being the radical party in terms of action, we have to go through a collective reflection.”

Making a historical comparison, he considers that Voluntad Popular is reaching a phase like the guerrilla groups did during the Rómulo Betancourt government after the Pérez Jiménez’s dictatorship was over: acknowledging their defeat and entering the status quo to make demands from the inside.

“Teodoro Petkoff, the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, Américo Martín, they went to the woods and admitted defeat,” he says. “Now, did they stop being the most radical? I would say not, they just started to play the game. They got inside the State and made demands from the inside, knowing fully well that they would never take control and ousting the Puntofijo Pact wasn’t viable. In spite of the ideological differences, and that the State they wanted to dismantle is considered democratic, I think that Voluntad Popular is going through a similar process.” 

If this translates into joining the strategy and discourse of the rest of the parties, then Voluntad Popular will stop being, in many instances, the radical party and will mimic the others.