Protest leader surrenders in Venezuela

February 19, 2014 - 9:14:58 am

Supporters of Leopoldo Lopez surround the National Guard vehicle driving Lopez away after he turned himself in during a demonstration in Caracas yesterday.

CARACAS: Hardline opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez handed himself over to Venezuelan security forces yesterday and a fourth person died from political unrest over the past week against President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

Lopez, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist who has spearheaded the protest movement, got into an armoured vehicle after giving a speech to an opposition rally in Caracas on another chaotic day in the South American Opec member nation.

“I have nothing to hide,” he told supporters with a megaphone, standing next to a statue of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti, minutes before. 

“I present myself to an unjust judiciary. They want to jail Venezuelans who want peaceful, democratic change.”

Lopez, wanted on charges including murder and ‘terrorism’, says he is being made a scapegoat by a dictatorial government.

In the coastal town of Carupano in eastern Venezuela, residents said a 17-year-old student struck by a car died after a demonstration against the socialist government.

That added to three fatal shootings last week in Caracas.

Student-led protests have multiplied this month across the nation of 29 million people in the biggest challenge to Maduro since his election last year following Hugo Chavez’s death.

The demonstrators are demanding Maduro’s resignation and expressing a litany of complaints from inflation and crime to corruption and product shortages.

“The country’s in an unsustainable state,” said filmmaker Jose Sahagun, 47, wearing white like many among thousands of demonstrators with Lopez in east Caracas.

“The government’s mask has fallen off. This man (Maduro) has held power for 10 months and the deterioration has been fast.”

Protest numbers, though, are smaller than mass movements in places such as Brazil, Ukraine and the Middle East, with little sign yet of Venezuelans joining en masse in the hundreds of thousands seen on the streets a decade ago.

Nor has there been any evidence Venezuela’s military might turn against Maduro, the 51-year-old successor to Chavez. 

“The armed forces will always be on the side of justice and development of the fatherland,” Defense Minister Carmen Melendez said. “Every act of violence takes us back to intolerance.”

Thousands of oil workers and Maduro supporters, clad in the red of the ruling Socialist Party, held their own demonstration on Tuesday, music blaring in a party atmosphere.

“Comrade President Nicolas Maduro can count on the working class,” said oil union leader Wills Rangel.

In a nation split largely down the middle on political lines, ‘Chavistas’ have stayed loyal to Maduro despite unflattering comparisons with his famously charismatic predecessor. Many Venezuelans fear the loss of popular, oil-funded welfare programs should the socialist lose power.

Reuters

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