Opposition leader, who is wanted for arrest, calls on supporters to join him for anti-government demonstration in Caracas
Venezuela is braced for fresh confrontations as a firebrand opposition leader rallies supporters to march with him through Caracas in defiance of a protest ban by President Nicolás Maduro.
The government has issued an arrest warrant for Leopoldo López, who is accused of “terrorism” for his alleged role in violent anti-government demonstrations across the country last week that left three dead.
Maduro says López has been conspiring to overthrow the government with the connivance of university students and the backing of the US, three of whose diplomats have received expulsion orders from Caracas in the past few days.
López – a former mayor of one of the capital’s districts – has denied the accusations but says he will come out of hiding on Tuesday to face the charges.
“I have nothing to fear,” the Harvard-educated politician said, in a defiant video address released on the internet. “I have committed no crime. I have been a Venezuelan with deep commitments toward my country and my people.”
He has called on supporters to wear white as a symbol of peace and to stop short of the last part of his journey to the ministry of justice and interior, which was the focus of much of the worse unrest last week.
By 11am, many thousands – mostly clad in white – had started to gather on Avenida Francisco de Miranda.
There are fears of a repeat of the deadly clashes between opposition protesters, police and “colectivo” militia groups loyal to the Chavista government.
Tensions and suspicions are still running high in the capital after funerals were held last week for the victims, who included Juan “Juancho” Montoya, a colectivo leader from the 23 de enero neighbourhood of Caracas.
Government leaders have declared Tuesday’s protest to be unauthorised. The head of parliament, Diosdado Cabello, said López and all those who accompanied him would be thrown in jail and the marchers would not be allowed to cross the border into the Libertador government district, which is controlled by Chavista supporters.
“No march will enter Municipio Libertador. Bring in the US government, bring in the marines if you want, but you will not enter. Do not bring your violence here,” Cabello warned during his weekly show.
Underscoring the tension, officials said on Monday that 17-year-old José Ernesto Mendez had been killed by a truck during a protest in Carupano – part of an ongoing wave of demonstrations, particularly by students.
Although the ruling bloc notched up impressive support during municipal elections last December, discontent about the government’s handling of the economy remains strong. Inflation is running above 56%. There are shortages of many essential commodities, such as toilet paper and milk.
López has emerged as the most radical voice of the opposition, whose leader Henrique Capriles has adopted a less confrontational and more pragmatic approach against a government that controls parliament, the media and the security forces.
The government blames the US for stirring up trouble in the oil-rich nation. On Monday, three US diplomats were ordered to leave within 48 hours because of their alleged involvement in the disturbances.
The foreign minister, Elías Jaua, said the expelled diplomats had met student activists at private universities “for training, financing and creating youth organisations through which violence is promoted in Venezuela”. The US government denies the claim.