How Fuerza Vecinal Sabotaged the Opposition – And Killed Itself

It branded itself as the post-polarization party of the Pax Bodegonica. Now, by refusing to support the unitary candidate, FV has chosen self-destruction

When Zulia governor Manuel Rosales declined his presidential candidacy and endorsed former diplomat Edmundo González Urrutia as the Unitary Platform’s (PUD) candidate, Fuerza Vecinal –a nominally ‘opposition’ party outside the PUD– found itself in deep waters. True to its historic role of opposing the mainstream opposition in its core districts, the party’s national leadership –which had endorsed Rosales– decided to support Antonio Ecarri’s presidential bid, a move that wasn’t consulted with the rest of their members. The decision cost them dearly. 

At time of writing this, all six of the party’s mayors in Trujillo state have broken ranks and announced their support for González Urrutia, just like one of their national lawmakers and a Cojedes mayor. They’ve since been joined by Jesús Mendoza Morales and the student movement at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), as well as FV’s National Operative Coordinator Pablo Zambrano and a slew of other members who have had enough. The party’s branches in Táchira, Carabobo, Monagas, Lara and Guárico also broke with the national leadership’s decision. Similarly, around 50 members from Fuerza Vecinal’s branch in La Pastora –in western Caracas– publicly quit

In other words, Fuerza Vecinal is bleeding to death.

But this organization’s sudden downfall isn’t that sudden: it’s actually a collateral effect of the reinvigoration of the mainstream opposition in recent months, and of the role the party has been playing over the past couple of months.

The lesser evil

While Fuerza Vecinal wasn’t founded until 2021, some of its most well-known founding members –Darwin González, David Uzcátegui, Elías Sayegh and Gustavo Duque– are actually former Primero Justicia (PJ) councilors who broke with the party after it decided not to participate in the 2017 municipal elections following the Constituent Assembly sham election. Without any major competition, the former PJ members won a solid number of municipalities –including the richest one and the rest of eastern Caracas, the opposition’s historic core.  

Finally, in 2021, the new mayors and other former members of the MUD parties –like mayor Josy Fernández– joined to form the new party. Soon afterwards, in November, the party secured an important number of municipalities throughout the country in the 2021 regional elections: including eastern Caracas, parts of the Caracas periphery, wealthy Lechería and part of Valencia. While Uzcátegui –supported at the last minute by MUD– lost the Miranda governorship by a small margin, the party managed to win the governorship of Nueva Esparta. 

Winning some 30 municipalities and a state secured Fuerza Vecinal’s image and launched them to the forefront of national politics as an electorally-successful alternative to the traditional opposition parties. Nevertheless, their success in those elections was mainly because they were supported by MUD in core municipalities or were represented by well-established opposition figures –many of which were seeking re-election rather than launching first-time campaigns. 

This meant that rather than being a true grassroots alternative to mainstream parties, FV’s voter base had picked them due to their pre-existing knowledge of the candidates, over any sort of loyalty or affinity with party ideals. Without any parallel MUD candidacies, the only other option for opposition voters was leaving these municipalities open to Chavista control.

FV became the least bad choice that many voters could make. Not exactly the formula for long-term success.

Alacraning around 

But the party would very quickly land itself in controversy over the course of the following year, eventually even accepting a meeting with Nicolás Maduro in Miraflores on December 16th, 2022 in a negotiation process that was parallel to the Unitary Platform’s. The encounter was part of a series of conversations that Miraflores held with non-unitary actors –such as Antonio Ecarri’s Alianza del Lápiz– to diminish the Unitary Platform’s leverage. 

Fuerza Vecinal’s leaders used that meeting to market themselves as independent from the mainstream parties and to show they were willing to meet with their main rival. But it didn’t do much to prove their commitment as an alternative opposition party, as they walked away after merely posing demands to Maduro that they knew wouldn’t be granted and wouldn’t land them in hot water. As Tony Frangie and I wrote back then, Fuerza Vecinal was simply taking the opportunity to market their own image.

This was an image that they themselves would continue to fracture as only a few months later Baruta’s mayor, Darwin González, would see himself dragged worryingly close to a massive national corruption scandal that the government would label the “PDVSA-Crypto Scheme”. Tens of government contacts and collaborators would be arrested in relation to the corruption scandal, including such high-ranking officials as Joselit Ramírez (then head of the national cryptocurrency watchdog) and Tareck El Aissami, which only made González’s continual freedom rather suspicious in the eyes of many observers. In fact, members of González’s team were arrested, as the mayorship had handed construction permits to a pair of powerful brothers who built a series of towers in the neighborhood of Las Mercedes in Baruta. Soon after, anti-corruption journalism site ArmandoInfo published an investigation claiming the purge had allowed for the Rodríguez siblings to establish a sort of informal patronage over the mayorship of Baruta. 

In hardcore opposition circles, the mayors were increasingly engulfed in a series of controversies regarding the excessive influence of shady business conglomerates in their handling of the country’s rich municipalities: permits for giant stores with never-ending electric showcases, bribes related to paddle tennis courts, waste recollection companies transformed into powerful patrons and widespread felling of urban trees. 

The primary-quake  

The downward spiral would continue in the coming months, after Fuerza Vecinal announced their participation in the October opposition primary –and Sayegh started to campaign through the country– only to back out leaving vague words of support. This decision was criticized by the party’s Zulia branch while the Trujillo branch openly endorsed María Corina Machado and called for the national leadership to do the same. 

But, just ten days before the primaries, the party published an open letter arguing the primaries elections should be “suspended.”  If all that wasn’t enough to cast suspicions on the party’s intentions, on October 23rd –just one day after Machado’s landslide victory in the primaries– Fuerza Vecinal’s leadership met with Maduro yet again during his “National Peace Conference”: a summit which didn’t include any members of the popular mainstream opposition parties but did include a series of ‘loyal opposition’ parties and academic and business groups that have cozied up with the Maduro regime in recent months. Fuerza Vecinal had gone from an alternative to a discredited opposition, born in an electoral vacuum, to another harmless support-party of the PSUV-centered system.

All this was too much for some of the party’s members. In November, Elías Sayegh and Josy Fernández, two founding members of Fuerza Vecinal, ended up quitting the party alongside six other sitting mayors, 21 municipal counselors, 29 regional representatives and one state legislator. This first big crack in Fuerza Vecinal’s ranks would be followed by the exodus of another 30 party members in January of this year.

Fuerza Vecinal comes to the system’s rescue (and commits harakiri)

A few months later, Fuerza Vecinal’s remaining leadership attempted to stop the bleeding and secure the party’s future by throwing in their lot with the candidacy of Un Nuevo Tiempo’s Manuel Rosales who would –controversially– register his presidential candidacy on March 25th during midnight and without notification the rest of the Unitary Platform’s members or Machado, whose proxy candidate Corina Yoris was arbitrarily blocked by the National Electoral Council’s (CNE) system.

The short life of the Rosales candidacy was a tragedy for Fuerza Vecinal. After everything that had happened, Fuerza Vecinal had finally found a way to play the role of serious opposition without actually risking their necks –or their control over the municipalities they rule as fiefdoms. All that was now gone. While González Urrutia –backed by Machado and the PUD– actually had a chance of defeating Maduro unlike the extremely-unpopular Rosales, Fuerza Vecinal had to once again ram the Platform’s plans – just like when it tried to sabotage the primaries, after it was clear these would result in the consolidation of Machado as leader of the opposition. Fuerza Vecinal, it was clear, wasn’t seeking to change the system: but to maintain it to survive. 

Thus, the party’s national leadership would end up endorsing Antonio Ecarri’s presidential bid. Massive party exodus followed. 

These decisions to walk away from Fuerza Vecinal have come with high prices for many. Sayegh and Fernández have been hit with political bans, barring them from office for 15 years: a decision which may have been taken as a way to send a message to every other politician out there who dares to break away from Maduro’s carefully crafted alacrán movement; a sort of exemplary punishment for the rebel mayors. 

It’s hard to tell what will happen with Fuerza Vecinal now that they find themselves so deeply fractured. The party is likely to survive but perhaps only as a shell of its former self. Its grip over core opposition districts –like Baruta and Chacao– could be over in 2025, if the PUD supports different candidates and opposition voters ‘punish’ Fuerza Vecinal for its rejection of González Urrutia. Their reputation, though, has been battered beyond recovery among the opposition’s bases and, while events after July 2024 are shrouded in a fog of uncertainty, the mainstream opposition should move to line up candidates to replace Fuerza Vecinal’s remaining politicians in elected office. For example, former UCV president Cecilia García Arocha, who joined the Machado campaign, is eyeing Chacao, while Baruta’s municipal council president Luis Aguilar broke with Fuerza Vecinal in 2022 to return to Primero Justicia. But there’s one thing that’s certain. The Fuerza Vecinal circus show isn’t over yet.