CARACAS, Venezuela—A Harvard graduate’s efforts to help improve his country hit an iron-barred wall this week when he got detained by Venezuelan state security forces and became the latest name on the country's growing list of political prisoners.

Francisco Marquez, a 30-year-old graduate of the Kennedy School of Government and chief-of-staff for an opposition mayor in Caracas, was arrested on Sunday night in central Venezuela, along with fellow opposition activist Gabriel San Miguel.

The two men are members of opposition party Voluntad Popular (VP), whose leader, another Kennedy School graduate, has been jailed in Venezuela since 2014 for leading protests that the government says led to violent revolts.

Marquez and San Miguel were reportedly stopped by members of the National Guard at a remote highway checkpoint as they headed towards the rural state of Portuguesa to campaign for a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro.

Their arrests come as the Venezuelan government becomes increasingly unpopular amid the country's downward spiral into economic and social chaos. Many Venezuelans are calling for President Maduro's removal through a referendum—something the socialist government has been fighting back against tooth and nail. Dozens of protesters have been arrested over the past two years on what opposition groups describe as trumped-up charges.


“These are two more political prisoners for the Maduro regime,” Manuela Bolivar, a congresswoman for Voluntad Popular, told Fusion.

Marquez and San Miguel spent two nights at a military base after their arrest on Sunday, and were then taken to a courthouse where a government prosecutor accused them of trying to generate “public instability.”


They were also accused of carrying illicit cash after police found 2,900,000 bolivares (approximately $2,900) in their car. Voluntad Popular officials say the funds were given to the two party organizers to pay for campaign expenses in Portuguesa.

“The government is mounting a show for the media,” said Gaby Arellano, a legislator who has been following the case closely.


Opposition activists are campaigning for the release of Marquez and San Miguel on Twitter

The judge overseeing the case last night determined that Marquez and San Miguel will be held in government custody until the accusations against them are fully investigated.

Venezuela's opposition is alerting international organizations about the arrests and says it will take the case before Thomas Shannon, the U.S. diplomat who was recently charged with overseeing U.S.-Venezuela relations.


The wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez made a video in support of Marquez and San Miguel

“This shows the enormous fear that the regime has of Venezuelan citizens, and how deeply terrified they are of change,” says David Smolansky, the mayor of El Hatillo, the Caracas suburb where Marquez and San Miguel work.


Described by friends as "smart, ambitious and idealistic," Marquez got a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard in 2012. He is one of several members of Venezuela's opposition who has studied at the Harvard Kennedy School in recent years.

Unlike some international graduates from the Kennedy School who stay in the U.S. to pursue careers with consulting firms and international organizations, Marquez decided to return to Venezuela to work in local politics. “He definitely had a lot of opportunities,” said Aaron Arnoldy, one of Marquez's classmates at Harvard. “He had an internship with McKinsey, which is one of the hardest businesses to get into.”

But Arnoldy said his friend was always “set” on going back to Venezuela and working for the opposition.


“He's not down there cause he wants to be a famous politician,” Arnoldy said.  “He wants to actually create some change.”

Marquez got a Masters of Public Policy in Harvard

The campaign to organize a referendum against President Maduro has already collected 1.3 million signatures. But opposition activists say Venezuela’s electoral authority is delaying the referendum by setting rules that require the opposition to personally verify 198,000 of the signatures collected a few weeks ago. Marquez was headed to Portuguesa to help local activists with the verification process there.


Prior to his detainment, Marquez had told his friends that he was being followed by Venezuelan government agents in Caracas. But it didn't deter him from continuing his campaign for the referendum against President Maduro.

“He's all about trying to improve the situation there,” Arnoldy said. “And he understands too that the work he's been doing is very difficult in the current situation.”

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.