A local beauty queen died of a gunshot wound on Wednesday, the fifth fatality from Venezuela’s political unrest, as imprisoned protest leader Leopoldo Lopez urged supporters to keep fighting for the departure of the socialist government.
Tensions have risen in Venezuela since Lopez, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist, turned himself in to troops on Tuesday after spearheading three weeks of often rowdy protests against President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
Held at a military jail, Lopez waited to learn on Wednesday if he would be charged for violence that has erupted during protests that have revitalised challenges to 15 years of socialist rule in the oil-rich nation and have resulted in at least six deaths and more than 100 injuries over the past week.
The latest victims of the unrest included college student and model Genesis Carmona, 22, who was shot in the head at a protest on Tuesday in the central city of Valencia. She died later in a clinic.
“How long are we going to live like this? How long do we have to tolerate this pressure, with them killing us?” said a relative, who asked not to be named.
“She only needed one more semester to graduate,” he added of Carmona, who had been studying tourism and had won the last year Miss Tourism competition in her state, in a country that prizes its beauty queens.
Three people were shot dead in Caracas after an opposition rally a week ago, and a fourth person, aged 17, died after being run over by a car during a demonstration in the coastal town of Carupano. Scores of people have been arrested or injured.
State television channel VTV said the mother of one its employees died while being rushed to hospital in Caracas. VTV said she suffered a heart attack while the ambulance carrying her was stuck in gridlock due to opposition supporters blocking roads.
“We cannot underestimate those fascist groups whose boss is behind bars,” Maduro said in a nationally televised speech late on Wednesday. “I’m not playing with democracy. I do not accept that they challenge the Venezuelan people and our Constitution.”
Lesser charges for protest leader?
Lopez’s hearing was closed, as sporadic protests continued to erupt throughout the capital, with protesters setting fires in the streets and police firing volleys of tear gas and blasts from water cannons.
Maduro’s government has accused Lopez, a former mayor and the leader of the Popular Will party, of attempting to foment a coup in the South American nation and authorities had said he could face charges that include homicide and causing grievous bodily harm.
A judicial official said prosecutors were leaning towards discarding homicide and terrorism charges, opting instead to pursue less serious counts such as arson and incitement to commit crimes.
That would allow the possibility of Lopez being released pending trial, according to the official, who agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name because the decision had not been made public.
Hundreds of supporters waited outside the courthouse for news of the decision, watched over by National Guard troops.
The crowd dissipated after hours of waiting when officials decided to hold the court hearing at the military jail outside Caracas where Lopez was being detained.
The opposition has planned nationwide marches for Saturday to protest both his detention as well as the rampant crime, shortages of consumer goods and inflation rate of more than 50 per cent that has made life difficult for many in the country of nearly 30 million people.
The jailing of Lopez has made him a cause célèbre among opponents of Maduro, eclipsing to some degree Henrique Capriles, the opposition’s two-time losing presidential candidate who was building support for another challenge in two years.
Lopez surrendered theatrically on Tuesday, dressed in white to signify peace, adorned with a crucifix from his wife and surrounded by a sea of supporters.
In an intriguing twist to the drama, Maduro said the powerful Congress head Diosdado Cabello, seen by many Venezuelans as a potential rival to the president, personally negotiated Lopez’s surrender via Lopez’s parents.
Cabello even helped drive him to custody in his own car given the risks to Lopez’s life from extremists, Maduro said.
Lopez has urged his supporters to keep fighting for the departure of Maduro’s socialist administration. “Today more than ever, our cause has to be the exit of this government,” he said, sitting by his wife in a pre-recorded video that was to be released in the event he was jailed. “Let’s fight. I will be doing so.”
Capriles attended a rally on February 12 in Caracas led by Lopez but did not appear on the stage to address the masses of demonstrators. Some in the opposition accused the government on Wednesday of infiltrating opposition demonstrations to provoke violence.
In southern Bolivar state on Wednesday, a gunman firing from a rooftop at a pro-government demonstration killed one person and wounded four, Governor Francisco Rangel Gomez said. Maduro, in a nationally televised Ccbinet meeting, showed videos of opposition protesters damaging property and setting fires and vowed to crack down on them.
Human rights groups have condemned the charges against Lopez, with Amnesty International and others saying they appear to be politically motivated. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier warned that arresting him would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.
US President Barack Obama criticised Maduro’s government for arresting protesters and urged it to focus on the “legitimate grievances” of its people.
The demonstrators are calling for Maduro’s resignation over issues ranging from inflation and violent crime to corruption and shortages of goods.
Maduro, who was narrowly elected last year to replace Hugo Chavez after his death from cancer, says Lopez and others in league with the US government are seeking a coup.
Street protests were the backdrop to a short-lived ouster of Chavez for 36 hours in 2002, before military loyalists and supporters helped bring him back.
There is no evidence the military, which was the decisive factor in the 2002 overthrow, may turn on Maduro now.
With local TV providing minimal live coverage of the street unrest, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have become the go-to media for many Venezuelans desperate for information.
However, many social media users are indiscriminately tweeting images without confirming their origin, leading to manipulation and gaffes including footage of unrest in Egypt and Chile being passed off as repression in Venezuela.
Detractors call Lopez a dangerous and self-serving hothead. He has frequently squabbled with fellow opposition leaders, and was involved in the 2002 coup, even helping arrest a minister.
Though the majority of demonstrators have been peaceful, a radical fringe has been attacking police, blocking roads and vandalizing buildings. Rights groups say the police response has been excessive, and some detainees say they were tortured.