Venezuela marks 100 days of protest
Venezuela hit its 100th day of anti-government protests yesterday, one day after its most prominent political prisoner, Leopoldo Lopez, vowed to continue his fight for freedom after being released from jail and placed under house arrest. Lopez’s surprise prison release triggered speculation over the prospect of negotiations between the opposition and Venezuela’s embattled leftist government of Nicolas Maduro, with a rising toll of death and destruction from three months of non-stop street protests.
Lopez, leader of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party and a symbol of resistance to the Maduro government, emerged hours after his release from prison looking fit and happy. He pumped his fist in the air, unfurled the Venezuelan flag and told a crowd of supporters who had gathered outside: “Yes, we can!” “I maintain my firm opposition to this regime,” Lopez said in a statement read by a leader of his party. “I reiterate my commitment to fight until conquering Venezuela’s freedom.”
President Maduro, in televised remarks later Saturday, called for a message of “peace and rectification” from Lopez. Maduro said he hoped the statement from Lopez could provide the basis for reconciliation “because the nation wants peace.” Lopez, a 46-year-old Harvard-trained politician, was held for more than three-and-a-half years in a military prison outside Caracas for allegedly “inciting violence” by calling for anti-government protests.
His release has been a key demand of Venezuela’s opposition and the international community, amid an intensifying political confrontation aimed at forcing the unpopular Maduro to hold early elections. Attorney General Luisa Ortega-the most senior figure to defy Maduro-accused the government of using Lopez to “improve its image.” “People deprived of liberty cannot be used as if they were hostages that can be objects of negotiation,” she told the Chilean daily newspaper La Tercera.
At least 91 people have died since April 1 in clashes between protesters and security forces over moves by the courts and the government to strip the National Assembly of power, delay elections and rewrite the constitution. The Supreme Court said it had ordered Lopez’s move to house arrest for health reasons, calling it a “humanitarian measure.” In Madrid, Javier Cremades, Lopez’s Spanish lawyer, underscored that “all of Leopoldo Lopez’s civil and political rights must still be restored.”
“What’s more, there are still 300 political prisoners in the Bolivarian jails,” he added. Foro Penal, an NGO, puts the number of political prisoners in Venezuela at 433. The government insists they are in jail for acts of violence. The US State Department called the release of Lopez “a significant step in the right direction”-but said many more such steps are needed.