CARACAS: Fugitive Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez calmly turned himself in to authorities on Tuesday as thousands of pro- and anti-government supporters rallied in the capital Caracas.
President Nicolas Maduro — whose government is under fire over what protesters say is rampant crime and deteriorating living conditions — had banned the opposition march called by Lopez at the Plaza Brion.
Lopez’s surrender marked a dramatic inflection point after two tension-filled weeks of protests in the oil-rich country, led by students also angry over the jailing of demonstrators.
The Harvard-educated economist told thousands of his supporters, all clad in white, that he hoped his arrest would highlight the “unjust justice” in Venezuela, to an explosion of cheers from the crowds.
Maduro, speaking to pro-government oil workers dressed in red in the western part of the city, countered that Lopez would have to “answer for his calls to sedition.”
The Venezuelan leader last week ordered Lopez’s arrest on charges of homicide and inciting violence after violent street clashes in Caracas left three dead.
But on Tuesday, he announced he was replacing the head of the national intelligence service, the Sebin, after rebuking a group within the agency for disregarding orders to stay in their barracks during last week’s deadly protest.
Defying a ban, thousands of Lopez’s supporters turned out dressed in white at the Plaza Brion after he called the march in a video message on Sunday, pledging to turn himself in if the government sought to arrest him.
Lopez, also in white, suddenly emerged in the crowd, climbing a statue of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti with a Venezuelan flag. After delivering a brief message to his cheering supporters, he surrendered to the National Guard.
“I present myself before an unjust justice, before a corrupt justice,” said the 42-year-old.
“If my incarceration serves to wake up a people… (it) will have been worth it.”
He calmly walked under escort to a National Guard vehicle as his supporters pressed in around the vehicle, blocking its path.
Shouts of “Freedom, Freedom!” and “It’s going to fall, it’s going to fall, this corrupt government is going to fall” rose from the crowd.
Lopez himself got on the loudspeaker from within the vehicle to appeal for calm.
“We are expressing the frustration we feel. The country is in chaos, there are no supplies in the hospitals, we are sick of the insecurity. I want a Venezuela of progress,” said Satle Oviedo, a 27-year-old hospital worker.
Oil workers rally for Maduro
Maduro’s government summoned its followers to rallies of its own in an area of downtown Caracas where the opposition march was to end, raising the risk of a violent confrontation.
Oil workers dressed in red marched toward the Miraflores presidential palace to hear Maduro speak. Along the way, they were serenaded with tropical rhythms of musical groups.
Maduro said authorities were “taking care” of Lopez.
“I know that his mother and father, while they may be against us, know in their hearts that we are saving their son’s life,” he said.
Under the slogan “the exit,” Lopez and other opposition leaders have pushed for anti-government protests to force a “constitutional change.”
There is no provision for recall elections until April 2016, and Maduro, who was elected in April 2013, has said he will never resign.
The confrontational approach has aroused misgivings within the opposition coalition formed in 2012 to defeat the late Hugo Chavez.
Henrique Capriles, the two-time opposition presidential candidate and governor of the state of Miranda, said he would attend Tuesday’s rally out of solidarity with Lopez but it was unclear if he went.
Tense US-Venezuela ties
The tensions generated by the protests have spilled into the international arena as well.
On Sunday, Maduro ordered the expulsion of three US diplomats, accusing them of meeting with student leaders under the guise of offering them visas.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, confirming the expulsion orders, said Tuesday the United States was considering possible action.
“We have seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela,” she said.
Venezuela’s relations with Washington, long strained under Chavez, have remained sour and distrustful under Maduro, who has hewed closely to his predecessor’s socialist policies.
In late September, Maduro kicked out three other US diplomats, on accusations of conspiring with government opponents. The two countries have had no ambassadors since 2010.
Former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, said he was joining a group of other former leaders who were offering to try to help calm the situation. AFP