I’m fighting politically for what I believe in: Goicoechea
Yon Goicoechea, one of eight Venezuelan opposition leaders awarded the 2017 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, during his interview with EFE on November 22, 2017 in Caracas. (Photo: Foto: Miguel Gutiérrez/EFE)
Caracas, Nov 30 (efe-epa).- Yon Goicoechea, one of eight Venezuelan opposition leaders awarded the 2017 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, faced the choice of either going into exile or waging a political struggle at home after being released from jail.
A “political prisoner" for 15 months, this 33-year-old attorney and Spanish and Venezuelan dual citizen decided to remain in Venezuela and began campaigning a few days ago for the December 10 mayoral elections in Caracas’ El Hatillo municipality.
"I was faced with two options: either leave the country or remain here to fight politically for what you believe in, and I'm fighting politically for what I believe in," the young opposition leader, who was released from jail on November 3, told EFE in an interview.
In contrast with the denunciations of other opposition prisoners, Goicoechea says he was not tortured and did not suffer any physical or verbal abuse during his time behind bars. But he says he endured a different form of aggression when the Sebin (Bolivarian Intelligence Service) continued to jail him even after a court had ordered his release in October 2016.
Political prisoners "only get out as a result of a political negotiation," he said, adding that "the opposition has a moral obligation to get those prisoners out (...) an enormous effort must be made to get them out of there."
“Hatred is tremendously destructive”
Referring to his jail term, he says he spent most of his time out of the sunlight or in "deplorable conditions" that included sharing a bathroom with 400 people, 10 days in a punishment cell and several weeks in isolation.
"It's the kind of experience that makes you (become) more human, come out with a greater desire to work. Although (the experiences) are not forgotten, they make you understand at a very deep level that hatred is tremendously destructive and that I would never want the people who put me in that cell to be put there," he said.
Although Goicoechea did not reveal who worked for his release, saying that doing so could affect other similar ongoing processes, he expressed gratitude to former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero for encouraging political dialogue in Venezuela through his role as a mediator.
The student movement that challenged Chávez
Goicoechea was the most influential leader of a student movement that challenged then-President Hugo Chávez’s government in 2007, and he played a crucial role in the "no" campaign that emerged victorious in a constitutional referendum late that year. Chavez, who died in 2013, had wanted to use the plebiscite to strengthen his powers and abolish presidential term limits. He failed on that occasion but won another referendum allowing indefinite re-election 15 months later.
Respected but also disparaged for his combative discourse and a willingness to tackle thorny issues that others avoided, the young opposition leader accused Chavez of sowing social resentment and warned of the similarities between the model proposed in his 2007 constitutional reform and Cuba’s communist system.
Goicoechea, whose grandparents hailed from Spain’s Basque Country and Canary Islands, was awarded the 2008 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty, a prestigious award conferred once every two years by the Washington DC-based Cato Institute.
After completing his studies in the United States and becoming a Spanish citizen, the young attorney chose to return to Venezuela in 2016 to continue his political activities.
However, that work was interrupted by Goicoechea’s "abduction" (as his fellow activists termed it) in August of that same year, when eight armed men riding in several SUVs intercepted him while he was driving in Caracas.
Chavista strongman Diosdado Cabello said on his television program that Goicoechea had been arrested with “detonation cords for explosives” in his possession.
He had been "trained by the US empire for years,” Cabello said, insisting that the Venezuelan government infinitely preferred the timely jailing of a murderer "to having one drop of blood spilled on the streets of Venezuela."
Goicoechea was held at Sebin's headquarters in Caracas, a building known as “El Helicoide.”
On October 26, Goicoechea, while still in jail, was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The Venezuelan’s candidacy had been proposed by the EP’s European People’s Party group.
This year’s prize recipients also included the speaker of Venezuela's National Assembly, Julio Borges; the leader of the Popular Will (VP) party, Leopoldo Lopez (under house arrest); former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma (who fled the country on November 17 and is living in exile in Spain); and several other "political prisoners": two more former mayors, Daniel Ceballos and Alfredo Ramos; and activists Lorent Saleh and Andrea Gonzalez.
Venezuelan’s "democratic opposition" will receive the award in a special session of the European Parliament on December 13 in Strasbourg, France.
From jail cell to campaign trail
Goicoechea is running for mayor of El Hatillo, one of five Caracas municipalities and an upper middle class opposition bastion where the Chavismo movement that has governed Venezuela since 1999 has never won.
This decision has distanced Goicoechea from the VP. That party and other opposition sectors refuse to take part in the elections because they say the National Electoral Council is biased in favor of President Nicolas Maduro's government, which a majority in the European Parliament regards as a dictatorship.
Many believe his surprise candidacy was one of the conditions for his release, as sources involved in the numerous attempts to free the opposition leader have confirmed and as Goicoechea himself has insinuated.
Those who believe that participating in elections legitimizes the Maduro regime have expressed their disappointment with Goicoechea’s unexpected electoral adventure but say they understand his decision.
Goicoechea believes his differences with the VP are not irreconcilable and will be sorted out after the mayoral elections.
In his interview with EFE, Goicoechea referred to the crisis affecting the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition alliance, which in recent weeks has failed to agree on its objectives ahead of the mayoral elections or its dialogue process with Maduro's government.
He said the MUD had "exploded" owing to a lack of policy coherence. If the opposition does not unite prior to the 2018 presidential election, "this country is headed for a total dictatorship; the window will close."
"There’s a very perverse system dominating Venezuela that involves the government, the private sector, international interests, mafias (...). Dismantling it will require a level of societal mobilization never seen before in Latin America," Goicoechea said.
By Héctor Pereira and Marcel Gascón
Translated by Parul Dua
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