Harvard-educated politician denies charges of terrorism for his alleged role in violent anti-government protests
Venezuela’s opposition firebrand Leopoldo López has handed himself in to the authorities after coming out of hiding to attend a rally of supporters in Caracas.
After the deadly protests that left three people dead last week, there was relief on the streets that a violent repeat has been avoided at least for now, but Lopéz’s defiance in recent days appears to have raised his profile as a figurehead of resistance to President Nicolás Maduro.
The Harvard-educated politician has been accused of “terrorism” for encouraging the anti-government protests in several cities last Wednesday that saw fierce clashes between opposition demonstrators, police and “colectivo” militia groups loyal to the Chavista government.
But in a megaphone speech to several thousand supporters dressed in white, López denied the charges and said he was turning himself in to a “corrupt justice” system as a means of promoting non-violent reform.
“I have nothing to hide. They want to jail Venezuelans who want peaceful, democratic change,” he said from a plinth for the statue of 19th century Cuban independence hero Jose Marti in Plaza Brion of Chacaito. “This is the first step in the construction of the road for change and it must, by necessity, be a peaceful process.”
Flanked by several members of his Popular Will party, he then walked towards a barricade where he was escorted away by police and national guardsmen.
His supporters said they had turned out despite fears of fresh clashes.
“I am afraid because of the violence I have seen, but I am more afraid of the course my country has taken”, said Ingrid Lopez, an accountant. “I am here today to tell the government they are unfit to lead this country.”
When police helicopters buzzed overhead, the crowd shouted their defiance and waved their hands to show that nobody was armed.
Watched by heavily-armed security forces and blocked by barriers, protesters were prevented from reaching their final destination in the Libertador Municipality.
Although the ruling bloc notched up impressive support during municipal elections last December, discontent about the government’s handling of the economy and public security remains strong. Inflation is running above 56% – the highest rate in the world.
There are shortages of many essential commodities, such as toilet paper and milk. Caracas has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
“I am not sure how we will wake up tomorrow”, said Jorge Farias a motor-taxi driver from Petare, a shanty town in western Caracas.
“This country can’t stand this much longer – this insecurity in the streets, and these food shortages”.Tensions and suspicions are still running high in the capital after funerals were held last week for the dead, who included Juan “Juancho” Montoya, a colectivo leader from the 23 de enero (23 January) neighbourhood of Caracas.
Underlining the tension, officials said on Monday that a 17-year-old youth, Jose Ernesto Mendez, was killed by a truck during a protest in Carupano, part of an ongoing wave of demonstrations, particularly by students.
López has emerged as the most radical voice of the opposition, whose leader Henrique Capriles has adopted a less confrontational and more pragmatic approach in dealing with a government that controls parliament, the courts, the media and the military.
Maduro now faces a tricky political decision. If the case goes to trial, it could create a platform for López. If he is jailed, the opposition would have a powerful new cause célèbre.
The government blamed 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, Elias 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 this.