Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez emerged from days of hiding and surrendered to police before thousands of supporters on Tuesday, saying he hoped his arrest would awaken Venezuela to the corruption and economic disaster caused by 15 years of socialist rule.
Speaking with a megaphone to more than 10,000 people, Lopez said that he did not fear going to jail to defend his beliefs and constitutional right to peacefully protest against President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
“If my jailing serves to awaken a people, serves to awaken Venezuela ... then it will be well worth the infamous imprisonment imposed upon me directly, with cowardice, by Nicolas Maduro,” Lopez told the sea of supporters who were dressed in white to symbolise non-violence. Venezuela’s red, yellow and blue flag hung from his shoulders.
The Harvard-educated Lopez was taken to a military base outside the capital.
His Popular Will party said he was expected to appear before a civilian judge on Wednesday. Maduro ordered Lopez’s arrest on charges of homicide and inciting violence, holding him responsible for tumultuous street clashes in Caracas last week that left three people dead.
The threat of more violence hung over Tuesday’s demonstration as Maduro led a rival march to denounce what he called a “fascist” plot to overthrow him. But Lopez’s repeated appeals for restraint, a strong police presence and heavy rain appeared to calm emotions and there were no reports of major violence in the capital.
A serious outburst was reported in Valencia, the third largest city where opposition demonstrators clashed with National Guard troops. Enzo Scrano, a mayor of one of the districts that make up the city and a member of an opposition party, said 11 protesters were wounded, including at least three with bullet wounds fired by unknown gunmen on motorcycles. One woman was shot in the head and was in critical condition, he said.
After a short speech, Lopez descended from a statue of 19th century Cuban independence hero Jose Marti, and waving a flower over his head walked a few feet to a police line, where he turned himself in to face what supporters say are trumped-up charges.
Lopez, a former mayor of the wealthy Chacao borough of Caracas, clasped the hand of his wife Lilian Tintori and exchanged a few quiet words with her before turning himself in to authorities at the rally in Caracas.
His fist raised in defiance, Lopez was pulled into an armoured vehicle and driven away. A cordon of heavily armed police blocked supporters from marching downtown as they had originally planned.
Hours after the arrest, Maduro addressed the rival crowd of red-shirted, pro-government oil workers, and said he personally oversaw security arrangements to make sure the opposition march and Lopez’s surrender did not generate violence.
“Nobody has the right to subject families to street violence by small, armed and hooded groups that today, the 18th of February, wanted to overthrow the government,” Maduro said, accusing Lopez of “psychological warfare” and treason. “In Venezuela everyone has full political freedoms.”
Maduro said Lopez would be escorted to a jail outside Caracas by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who in recent days met with the opposition leader’s family to warn them of an attempt by right-wing extremists to assassinate him. He did not provide any details or evidence to back up the claim.
Public enemy No 1
Lopez, considered public enemy No 1 by the administration, has a strong following in parts of Venezuela, winning his past elections by comfortable, and even overwhelming margins.
He has a long history of activism in the country’s anti-socialist opposition, having been at the forefront of demonstrations in April 2002 that led to a coup that briefly ousted then-President Hugo Chavez.
A child of privilege, Lopez received a good deal of his education in the United States. He attended the posh Hun prep school in Princeton, New Jersey, before enrolling at Ohio’s elite Kenyon College.
He went on to get his master’s degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Lopez is considered brash and ambitious – dangerous attributes for his foe Maduro, 51, Chavez’s handpicked successor, who is deemed by many Venezuelans to be somewhat charisma-challenged.
Lopez’s staunch opposition to the government dates back to the regime of Chavez, who in 2011 barred him from holding political office for three years.
It was the second time he was barred from politics: the government aaccused him of influence peddling while working in 1998 as a manager at the Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) state oil company, and in 2008 barred him from holding public office for one year.
During his two terms as mayor of Chacao, he was dogged by allegations that he had misappropriated public funds. He has rejected all of the charges against him as political persecution by the Chavez regime.
After being expelled as leader of the Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Time) party, which he joined in 2007, Lopez in 2009 created his centre-right People’s Will party, which has led demonstrations that have roiled Venezuela.
The dueling rallies came one day after Maduro’s government gave three US embassy officials 48 hours to leave the country, claiming they were supporting opposition plots to topple his 10-month-old administration.
Lopez and two other opposition leaders – deputy Maria Corina Machado and the mayor of metropolitan Caracas, Antonio Ledezma – advocate using street protests to force Maduro from office.
In Washington, the State Department on Tuesday said allegations that the US was helping to organise protests are “baseless and false” and said it was evaluating what retaliatory action to take for the diplomats’ expulsion. Maduro has expelled American diplomats two times before.
Hundreds of students have spent the past week in the streets of Caracas alternating between peaceful protests by day and pitched battles with police at night in unrest fed by hardships that include rampant crime, 56 per cent inflation and shortages of basic goods.
Two students and a government supporter were killed in clashes last Wednesday. News videos and photographs taken at the time indicate at least one of the students was killed when pro-government militia members fired directly into a crowd of protesters.
The protests flared on February 4 when students at a university in the western state of Tachira staged a demonstration against rampant crime after a student was raped.
On Monday, a 17-year-old boy was killed when an unidentified vehicle accelerated into a group of student protesters in the state of Sucre.
Evelyn Montes, a medical student participating in Tuesday’s protests, said the arrest of Lopez would make plain to many Venezuelans and the world what she considers Maduro’s authoritarian bent.
“People are scared,” Montes said as protesters began to gather in eastern Caracas on Tuesday. “This will open their eyes.”
With additional reporting from AFP