CARACAS, Venezuela – Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez emerged from days of hiding and surrendered to police before thousands of supporters today, saying he hopes his arrest awakens 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 didn’t 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 symbolize non-violence. Venezuela’s red, yellow and blue flag hung from his shoulders.
The U.S.-educated Lopez was taken to a military base outside the capital. His Popular Will party says he was expected to appear before a civilian judge Wednesday on charges that include homicide and inciting violence during protests last week in which three people were killed as government forces clashed with protesters.
The threat of more violence hung over today’s demonstration as Maduro led a rival march to denounce what he calls 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.
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.
His fist raised in defiance, Lopez was pulled into an armored 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 didn’t 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 didn’t provide any details or evidence to back up the claim.
The dueling rallies came one day after Maduro’s government gave three U.S. Embassy officials 48 hours to leave the country, claiming they were supporting opposition plots to topple his 10-month-old administration.
In Washington, the State Department today said allegations that the U.S. is helping to organize protests are “baseless and false” and said it was evaluating what retaliatory action to take for the diplomats’ expulsion. Maduro has expelled American diplomats twice before.
“We’ve seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the U.S.,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, adding that the Obama administration was “alarmed” by displays of violence by security forces and pro-government militias at recent demonstrations.
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 percent inflation and shortages of basic goods.
Three people were killed in clashes last Wednesday – two students and a government supporter. 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. 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 today’s protests, said the arrest of Lopez will 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 today. “This will open their eyes.”