Venezuela op­po­si­tion leader urges pub­lic, army, on strike

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - WORLD -

Op­po­si­tion leader Leopoldo Lopez called on Venezue­lans to sup­port a 48-hour gen­eral strike be­gin­ning Wed­nes­day in protest of gov­ern­ment plans to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion, in his first di­rect pub­lic mes­sage since be­ing re­leased from prison to house ar­rest.

The 46-year-old for­mer Caracas-area mayor, who was sen­tenced to 14 years in 2015 af­ter be­ing con­victed of in­cit­ing vi­o­lence dur­ing a pre­vi­ous spate of protests, also ap­pealed to the mil­i­tary not to de­ploy for Sun­day’s elec­tion of a con­stituent as­sem­bly tasked with over­haul­ing the em­bat­tled na­tion’s char­ter.

“We are on the brink of their try­ing to an­ni­hi­late the repub­lic that you swore to de­fend,’’ Lopez said in a 15-minute video mes­sage. “I ask you not to be ac­com­plices in the an­ni­hi­la­tion of the repub­lic.’’

Streets were quiet Wed­nes­day morn­ing in much of the cap­i­tal, Caracas, as many res­i­dents stayed home in ob­ser­vance of the strike.

Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro is pro­mot­ing the con­sti­tu­tion re­write as a means of re­solv­ing Venezuela’s po­lit­i­cal stand­off and eco­nomic cri­sis, but op­po­si­tion lead­ers are boy­cotting it. The as­sem­bly could dra­mat­i­cally re­shape gov­ern­ment and help Maduro fur­ther con­sol­i­date his power.

Three days of protests are planned lead­ing up to Sun­day’s vote, start­ing with the strike and cul­mi­nat­ing Fri­day with a demon­stra­tion billed as a “takeover of Caracas.’’

“I want to tell the Venezue­lan peo­ple that in mind, spirit and con­vic­tion, I have ac­com­pa­nied you in this fight on the streets,’’ Lopez said from his home, where he is mon­i­tored with an elec­tronic bracelet. “And you all know that if I could, I would phys­i­cally be at the front.’’

The gov­ern­ment-stacked Supreme Court re­leased Lopez in early July, point­ing to pos­si­ble “ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties’’ in his case. The re­lease sur­prised gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers and foes alike be­cause the high court has not pre­vi­ously shown any mis­giv­ings about its rul­ings.

Hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions and for­eign gov­ern­ments crit­i­cized Lopez’s de­ten­tion as po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated. One of the prose­cu­tors on the case who later sought asy­lum in the United States said he was or­dered by the gov­ern­ment to ar­rest Lopez de­spite a lack of ev­i­dence.

Dressed in white and speak­ing as­sertively, Lopez said he did not re­gret one minute of his three-year im­pris­on­ment if it helped “awaken the Venezue­lan peo­ple.’’ He also vowed to con­tinue speak­ing out.

“If that rep­re­sents a risk that they sen­tence me again to Ramo Verde or any other jail in Venezuela, I am will­ing to take that risk,’’ Lopez said.

Also Wed­nes­day a top Cuban of­fi­cial said his coun­try has no in­ten­tion of try­ing to me­di­ate a so­lu­tion to Venezuela’s cri­sis, re­ject­ing the idea of what he called “for­eign med­dling’’ and voic­ing full sup­port for Maduro, a key ide­o­log­i­cal and eco­nomic ally.

AP PHOTO

Anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers run from ad­vanc­ing Venezue­lan Bo­li­var­ian Na­tional Guard of­fi­cers on the first day of a 48-hour gen­eral strike in protest of gov­ern­ment plans to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion, in Caracas, Venezuela, Wed­nes­day.

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