After years behind the scenes, the wives of two jailed mayors are looking to succeed their husbands in special elections that have come to symbolize the prominent role Venezuelan women are playing in the three-month-old protests against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.
Patricia Gutierrez, 30, and Rosa Brandonisio, 54, had scant experience in politics when their husbands were ousted in March and arrested for allegedly failing to carry out a government order to remove street barricades in the opposition strongholds they governed.
Although previously little-known to voters, both women were expected to coast to victory when the residents of San Cristobal in Tachira State and San Diego in Carabobo State voted in mayoral elections yesterday. Instead of campaigning on pledges to improve city services, Gutierrez and Brandonisio have vowed to continue their husbands’ fight to oust Maduro.
“I may not be completely ready, but I’m going into this without fear,” Brandonisio told reporters. “I’m just the free face of the mayor.”
At least 42 people on both sides have been killed in three months of protests fueled by frustration with rampant crime, food shortages and soaring prices. More than 3,000 protesters have been arrested, 163 of whom remain jailed, according to the Venezuelan Penal Forum.
Although women occupy positions of power in Maduro’s Cabinet, the country’s armed forces and as pro-government community activists, their prominence in the opposition leadership is more recent — a result of a crackdown that has forced several to serve as stand-ins for their imprisoned husbands.
Brandonisio’s husband, former San Diego mayor Enzo Scarano, was hastily sentenced to more than 10 months in prison by the Venezuelan Supreme Court after Maduro accused him of plotting a coup, while former San Cristobal mayor Daniel Ceballos, Gutierrez’s husband, received one year.
Ceballos is a member of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party headed by former Chacao mayor Leopoldo Lopez, a fiery politician who alienated many in the opposition by calling for Maduro’s resignation weeks after the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela prevailed in municipal elections last year.
After three people died in mass protests, Lopez was arrested and charged with inciting violence. He faces 10 years in jail if convicted.
Since turning himself in to the authorities in February, Lopez’s wife, former kitesurfing champion Lilian Tintori, has been his connection to the outside world, reading letters he pens in jail at anti-government rallies and traveling abroad to draw attention to his case.
To see their husbands, all three women must travel to a military prison outside Caracas.
Tintori is sometimes accompanied by another prominent female opposition figure, former Venezuelan congresswoman Maria Corina Machado, who has arguably become the president’s loudest opponent. In March, she was stripped of her seat in the National Assembly of Venezuela after being accused of treason by Maduro.
Venezuela is better known for producing beauty queens than female politicians. Only 18 percent of cities are governed by women, less than the regional average of 24 percent, according to a 2011 study by the Caracas-based Latin American Institute of Social Investigations.
The opposition’s strategy of tapping wives to draw attention to the government’s pursuit of their husbands was first tried in 2010, when Eveling Trejo was elected mayor of Maracaibo — the country’s second-biggest city — after her husband and former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales fled to Peru rather than face what he says are trumped-up charges of corruption. She was re-elected last year.
Brandonisio ran for office for the first time last year when she was elected to the city council of San Diego, a district outside the industrial city of Valencia.
Gutierrez, a mother of three children under the age of six, said her political awakening came in 2007 during an earlier wave of student protests that she and her husband joined.
“We want to show the government that our city doesn’t fall on its knees,” she said.
Voters in the two cities, who overwhelmingly voted against Maduro in elections following the death of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez a year ago, are likely to agree, but national officials are keeping watch if protests flare anew.
“Whoever wins these elections, at the first false move, the authorities will act,” Maduro said last month after the date of the by-election was announced.
Those mayors who violate the laws will “meet the same fate as those behind bars,” he said.