CARACAS, Venezuela – 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 Venezuela's women are playing in three-month-old protests against 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, at the height of unrest, and arrested for allegedly failing to carry out a government order to remove street barricades in the opposition strongholds they governed.
Although little-known to voters previously, both are expected to coast to victory when residents of San Cristobal and San Diego vote Sunday to choose new mayors. Instead of campaigning on pledges to improve city services, they're vowing to continue their husbands' fight to force Maduro from office.
"I may not be completely ready, but I'm going into this without fear," Brandonisio told The Associated Press. "I'm just the free face of the mayor."
At least 42 people on both sides have been killed in three months of demonstrations fueled by mounting frustration with crime, food shortages and rapidly rising 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 within Maduro's Cabinet, the armed forces and as pro-government community activists, their prominence within 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, Enzo Scarano, was hastily sentenced by the Supreme Court to more than 10 months of prison after Maduro accused him of plotting a coup. The other mayor, Daniel Ceballos from San Cristobal, a western city along the border with Colombia, received a year in jail.
Ceballos is a member of the Popular Will party headed by Leopoldo Lopez, a fiery former mayor who went against many in the opposition by calling for Maduro's resignation just weeks after the ruling party prevailed in municipal elections. After three people died during mass protests, Lopez was arrested and charged with inciting violence. He faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted.
Lopez hasn't been unseen and unheard since turning himself in to authorities in February, and his wife Lilian Tintori, a former kitesurfing champion, has become his connection to the outside world, reading handwritten letters from 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 hardliner, Maria Corina Machado, who has perhaps become the president's loudest opponent. In March she was stripped of her seat in Congress after being accused of treason by the president.
Venezuela has long been better known for producing beauty queens than female politicians. Only 18 percent of cities are governed by women, less than a 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 here 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 said were 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 6, 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 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 warned 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."
AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.