MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to Venezuela, which holds municipal elections tomorrow. As we've discussed on the program before, food shortages, hyper-inflation and a violent crackdown on protesters have made the administration of President Nicolas Maduro deeply unpopular. But Maduro's problems have not translated into success at the ballot box for Venezuela's political opposition. Reporter John Otis is in Caracas and he explains why.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Yon Goicoechea would seem like an ideal candidate for the opposition in municipal elections that will be held on Sunday.
YON GOICOECHEA: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: Goicoechea, who is running for mayor of El Hatillo, a middle-class suburb of Caracas, oozes charisma. At this town hall meeting, he quickly wins over the crowd.
GOICOECHEA: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: Goicoechea has earned his stripes in the opposition. As a university student, he led protests against the late Hugo Chavez, who ushered in Venezuela's socialist revolution. After receiving threats, he fled the country. He returned to Venezuela last year but was jailed for 14 months on charges of possessing explosives.
GOICOECHEA: I first had a cell in which - if I extend my arms, I could touch both sides of the cell. It was really hard, really claustrophobic.
OTIS: He was released last month after the charges were dropped, but instead of a warm welcome back to freedom, his decision to run for mayor has angered his political allies. That's because Venezuela's main opposition parties are calling for a boycott of Sunday's vote, claiming it will not be free and fair. They point out that electoral officials are Maduro loyalists and that the government has refused to allow independent observers to monitor the vote. Dirty tricks also marred October's gubernatorial elections that were dominated by candidates of the ruling Socialist Party.
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FREDDY GUEVARA: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: At a recent news conference, opposition leader Freddy Guevara said, "under these conditions, we can't keep playing the regime's game." As a result, Goicoechea's defiance of the opposition boycott has sparked ugly rumors. Some say that while in prison, he cut a deal with the government - his freedom in exchange for taking part in sham elections.
GOICOECHEA: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: At the town hall meeting, this woman asked Goicoechea point blank whether he's gone over to the government's side, which he strongly denies. The dispute is another sign of chaos within the opposition. Analysts say that instead of keeping their eyes on the prize of winning elections, rival factions often spend more time taking aim at one another. What's more, sitting out the election will allow the ruling party to maintain control of hundreds of town and city governments. That's according to Javier Corrales, a Venezuela expert at Amherst College.
JAVIER CORRALES: There's nothing that the government wants more than abstention.
OTIS: Meanwhile, opposition leaders are holding talks with the Maduro government in the Dominican Republic. One of their goals is to ensure equal conditions for next year's presidential election. But Goicoechea doubts Maduro will make any concessions. He argues that the opposition must contest every election and points out that its candidates sometimes pull off upset victories.
GOICOECHEA: I know that the electoral conditions are not fair. I know that these are not democratic elections, but this is what we can do. And we need to get stronger if we want to change the situation in the country.
OTIS: Newly freed from prison, Goicoechea will resume his fight for change on Sunday. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas.
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