By Angus Berwick and Maria Ramirez
LA PICA, Venezuela (Reuters) - One of Venezuela's most influential union leaders has vowed to press on with his fight for workers' rights after his release this week from two years of detention in a military prison on what he calls trumped up charges.
Soldiers detained Ruben Gonzalez, one of 110 people pardoned on Monday by President Nicolas Maduro, in 2018 after he led a protest to demand the Socialist leader defend Venezuela's once-potent steel industry.
A military court sentenced him to almost six years in prison for attacking an army outpost and insulting the armed forces, leading the United Nations to call for his release.
Granted his freedom Tuesday, the 61-year-old, dressed in a blue and white shirt from his steel workers union, was met by his daughter, Yarudid, at the gates of La Pica prison.
In a phone interview from his home in Puerto Ordaz, in the southeastern state of Guayana, Gonzalez said he did not consider himself pardoned, but "freed from a kidnapping because I did not commit any crime."
After returning to his wife, their four children and 13 grandchildren, Gonzalez vowed to continue as head of the Sintraferrominera union to "keep defending the just cause of the workers."
The mass pardon came as Maduro seeks to encourage the opposition to participate in parliamentary elections scheduled for early December, despite concerns the vote may not be free and fair.
Top government officials have claimed the pardons will quiet down opposition voices. But Gonzalez was adamant that his regained freedom did not mean holding back from criticizing what he decries as the state's abandonment of workers.
Having had little contact with the outside world in prison, Gonzalez said he was shocked to find out that his workers now earn even less than when he was jailed, unable to afford a chicken or a carton of eggs with a month's pay.
"I have a responsibility to carry their message and their struggle," he said. "That is my life's work."
Gonzalez once backed Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez. But he went on to become a strident critic of the government, which he blames for allowing corrupt officials to pillage Venezuela's resources and betraying its promise to empower workers.
Late last year, Reuters visited Gonzalez in La Pica prison, outside the northeastern city of Maturin. He was the only civilian jailed there - a sign, he said, of how the government wanted to make an example of him.
"I represent the truth," he said at the time, sitting at a plastic table outside his cell. "God will judge those that put me here."
Born in 1959 to a poor family in the coastal city of Barcelona, Gonzalez was a rebellious teenager, causing his father to kick him out. After drifting, he ended up in Guayana, the site of much of Venezuela's natural wealth.
He found work at Ferrominera, the state-owned iron ore producer, and began helping his fellow workers by organizing union activities.
In 1998, Chavez won a presidential election by a landslide, pledging to help the poor, and Gonzalez supported him. He was later elected as a local counselor for Chavez's socialist party, but the former army lieutenant colonel soon chafed against the unions as he asserted his control.
Gonzalez became head of Sintraferrominera in 2008 and called protests to demand Chavez agree to new pay terms. He was jailed for two years on charges of conspiring to "sabotage" Ferrominera.
"Chavez turned on me," Gonzalez said.
"ALL I DO"
Maduro took over in 2013 after Chavez's death. Global oil prices sank, pushing the economy into recession: investment in Ferrominera dried up and the mines began to close. Hyperinflation eroded salaries, leaving workers earning the equivalent of just a few dollars a month.
Gonzalez again took the government to task.
On Aug 13, 2018, he tried to enter a mine to present demands to executives, but guards barred him, Gonzalez said. Soldiers ordered him to go their command post for questioning, according to a National Guard report, but he drove home.
When officers tried to enter his house, the National Guard said Gonzalez's friends and relatives hit and insulted them. Gonzalez, along with his family and lawyers, deny this, though they acknowledge he refused to go with them.
He escaped and went into hiding. Two months passed and he thought authorities' attention on him had dissipated. On Nov. 27, he traveled to Caracas to lead a march for improved contracts. Returning to Guayana, his bus was halted at a National Guard checkpoint and soldiers arrested him.
A day later, a court in Maturin ordered his imprisonment.
"I don't stand for the opposition or the government," he told the judge, according to the ruling. "All I do is protect workers' rights."
(Editing by Dan Flynn and Tom Brown)