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Venezuelan president, opposition brace for protest

Two men head toward a showdown today that promises to draw thousands to the edge of violence in Venezuela, where a week of street protests fueled by inflation and deprivation has left at least three dead and scores injured.

Leopoldo Lopez, a Harvard-educated political activist and former mayor, has dared authorities to arrest him and called on supporters to don white shirts for a march to the Ministry of Justice in Caracas. There, he plans to demand arrests in the recent slayings and push for citizens' right to protest.

President Nicolas Maduro faces a decision on how to deal with today's march: Take the widely popular Lopez into custody and fuel discontent or keep him on the street and chip at his reputation, said Oswaldo Ramirez, an independent consultant in Caracas.

Maduro didn't sit still waiting on Lopez, though, calling for a simultaneous rally around the Miraflores presidential palace. On Monday, the president of the state-run PDVSA oil company urged its 53,000 workers to head to Miraflores to defend the revolution.

◄ The crisis unfolds against a backdrop of political and economic struggle in Venezuela. Lopez was banned from political office in 2011 for three years, largely because the man behind the revolution, the late President Hugo Chavez, recognized him as a threat.

It is the revolution, and the vital support it received from Communist Cuba, that is drawing people to the streets of Tampa today, too. Local Venezuelans who opposed Chavez and his successor Maduro plan to gather near Tampa City Hall at noon.

They aim to caution against normalizing relations with Cuba and to spark discussion about oppression in Venezuela. They want more direct action, including sanctions, by the United States, said Federico Alves, 53, a Venezuelan who has lived in Clearwater for 10 years.

“The response from President Obama has been mild to nonexistent,” Alves said. “Why are we doing business as usual with Maduro?”

The United States came under renewed blame for the protests in Venezuela by Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, who on Monday gave three U.S. diplomats 48 hours to leave. Jaua calls the protests part of a plot to topple Maduro's 11-month-old administration and blames sources including “Nazi fascists” and former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe

In a news conference, Jaua said the three consular officers had been meeting with university students under the guise of offering U.S. visas when they actually were making contact with student leaders and providing training.

“Venezuela is facing a fascist attack promoted by groups that have previously been trained to generate violence,” he said.

Chavez was briefly ousted in a 2002 coup that the government has long maintained was U.S.-backed, despite Washington denials.

On Sunday, shortly after he ordered the latest round of expulsions, Maduro said Venezuela would not tolerate interference from any nation.

“Go back to Washington and conspire,” he said. “Leave Venezuela alone.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the government had not been formally notified of the expulsions and denied any involvement in the protests.

“We support human rights and fundamental freedoms — including freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly — in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world. But as we have long said, Venezuela's political future is for the Venezuelan people to decide,” she said in a statement. “We urge their government to engage all parties in meaningful dialogue.”

The two countries haven't had ambassadors since 2010, and diplomatic ousters are commonplace.

Lopez's defiance and the swelling marches are, perhaps, the biggest challenge Maduro has faced since narrowly winning election in April. The one-time bus driver, union organizer and longtime foreign minister has struggled to fill Chavez's shoes as he's been battered by runaway inflation, soaring crime and sporadic food shortages.

Added to that volatile mix is a surging student movement that has been at the vanguard of national demonstrations for more than a week. On Wednesday, the protests turned violent and three people were killed. The opposition points to videos and photos that appear to show security forces and gunmen behind police lines firing into the crowd.

In one episode Monday, a crowd of anti-government activists wrested free an opposition politician as he was being hauled away in handcuffs by security forces after a raid on the headquarters of the Popular Will party, led by Lopez.

Lopez has been underground since he was ordered arrested for crimes including homicide and vandalism in connection with the protests.

Both sides are calling for peace, but the prospect of the dueling marches has the capital on edge.

“There's definitely a sense of nervousness,” said Hector Pinares, who drives a taxi in downtown Caracas. “Today, everything is OK, but (Tuesday) I think a lot of people are going to avoid the center.”

The government has not authorized the opposition demonstration. And late Monday organizers said many of their supporters would end the march before crossing into central Caracas.

“The idea is not to put anyone's life in danger,” said Karina Rico, an official with the Popular Will party.

On Twitter, Lopez said he would go to the Ministry of Justice alone. “I will not put any Venezuelan's life at risk,” he wrote.

In Tampa, Maduro opponents say they expect the protest to continue until the president is ousted.

“Now we want regime change, and we're not going to stop” said Alves, of Clearwater. “The young people don't care about dying. They just want to get rid of that guy.”

Alves compared this movement to the Arab Spring that toppled regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

The Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey says nearly 6,000 Venezuelans live in the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties — a larger population group than from any South American country except Colombia and Peru. Statewide, Venezuelans number 102,116, second only to Colombians among South Americans ► South Americans ◄ .

Norma Reno, a Venezuelan lawyer ► attorney ◄ who lives in Tampa Palms, said the issue for the Tampa area is bigger than the crisis in Venezuela because local leaders are moving toward redeveloping ties with Cuba.

“They are opening the door to the enemy,” Reno said.

Look first at what Cuba has done for Venezuela, she cautioned. Long a functioning democracy, Venezuela is now a Communist state manipulated by the Castro regime, she said.

“All of a sudden the Cubans are there,” she said, estimating the number of Cubans in Venezuela at 100,000.

“There aren't any worse people,” Reno said, “than the Communist.”

Information from The Miami Herald, McClatchy-Tribune, The Associated Press and Bloomberg News was used in this report.

José Patiño Girona of The Tampa Tribune contributed to this report.

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