Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment frees its strong­est po­lit­i­cal ri­val

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - MAR­I­ANA ZUÑIGA AND NICK MIROFF nick.miroff@wash­ Rachelle Kry­gier con­trib­uted to this re­port from Madrid.

caracas, venezuela — The Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment freed its fiercest po­lit­i­cal ri­val early Satur­day in a sur­prise move, al­low­ing op­po­si­tion leader Leopoldo López to leave his prison cell and re­turn home af­ter nearly three and a half years be­hind bars.

Venezue­lan au­thor­i­ties called the de­ci­sion a hu­man­i­tar­ian ges­ture, cit­ing López’s al­legedly poor health, but his sup­port­ers cel­e­brated his re­lease as a ca­pit­u­la­tion by the em­bat­tled gov­ern­ment. Con­cerns about López’s well-be­ing were calmed when he briefly ap­peared be­fore cheer­ing crowds out­side his fam­ily home, wav­ing a Venezue­lan flag and thrust­ing a de­fi­ant fist sky­ward.

He did not ad­dress the crowd, and the con­di­tions of his trans­fer from prison to house ar­rest were not im­me­di­ately known.

López, Venezuela’s most prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal pris­oner, was ar­rested in early 2014 and handed a 13-year jail term. He be­came a sym­bol of re­sis­tance for op­po­nents of the gov­ern­ment, his por­trait printed in bright col­ors on the T-shirts and flags of protesters who chant, “Free Leopoldo!”

López, 46, was es­corted out the prison at about 3 a.m. un­der cover of dark­ness, and news of his re­lease was ap­plauded by gov­ern­ments across the hemi­sphere, which called on Venezue­lan au­thor­i­ties to re­lease oth­ers held on po­lit­i­cally re­lated charges.

Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro has yet to speak pub­licly about the de­ci­sion to free López, but the move rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal risk for his gov­ern­ment. The charis­matic for­mer Caracas mayor ranks in polls as the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar politi­cian, and in a state­ment from López read by fel­low op­po­si­tion lead­ers Satur­day, he said he was not afraid to re­turn to jail.

“If con­tin­u­ing my fight for free­dom means go­ing back to [prison] I am ready to do it,” his state­ment read. “I re­it­er­ate to you my com­mit­ment to fight for free­dom.”

López’s sup­port­ers were quick to point out that while the con­di­tions of his con­fine­ment had changed, his con­vic­tion — on charges of in­cit­ing vi­o­lence dur­ing 2014 protests — had not been lifted. His abil­ity to as­sume lead­er­ship of the new protest move­ment against Maduro could be lim­ited by the terms of his house ar­rest.

His fa­ther, Leopoldo López Gil, told re­porters that au­thor­i­ties placed an elec­tronic mon­i­tor­ing bracelet on his son, “but out­side of that we don’t know of any other lim­i­ta­tion,” he said, speak­ing from ex­ile in Spain.

“What hap­pens now de­pends very much on what Leopoldo is al­lowed to do and whether he will have the free­dom to ex­er­cise lead­er­ship of the op­po­si­tion,” said Caracas po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Car­los Romero.

Many said they were puz­zled by the gov­ern­ment’s sud­den de­ci­sion to re­lease him, but a state­ment by De­fense Min­is­ter Vladimir Padrino Lopez cred­it­ing in­ter­na­tional me­di­a­tors ap­peared to of­fer in­sight into Maduro’s think­ing.

“To­day the coun­try woke up to a ges­ture that was the re­sult of di­a­logue,” Padrino Lopez said, prais­ing me­di­a­tors led by for­mer Span­ish Prime Min­is­ter Jose Luis Ro­dríguez Za­p­a­tero.

Yet years of failed at­tempts at me­di­a­tion have con­vinced many gov­ern­ment op­po­nents that such calls are hol­low and cyn­i­cal at­tempts to buy more time. They called Maduro’s de­ci­sion the re­sult of grow­ing do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional pres­sure on the cash­strapped gov­ern­ment to re­turn to demo­cratic norms.

In a state­ment to re­porters, López’s staff de­scribed his re­lease as a “uni­lat­eral” de­ci­sion by the gov­ern­ment, not the re­sult of a quid pro quo ne­go­ti­a­tion.

Venezuela has been on a hair­trig­ger in re­cent weeks, as the Maduro gov­ern­ment pushes for­ward with a widely con­demned plan to hold a “con­stituent assem­bly” that will have the power to re­write the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tion. The gov­ern­ment has set July 30 as the date for vot­ers to be­gin elect­ing del­e­gates to the assem­bly, which op­po­nents of the gov­ern­ment say they will boy­cott.

On Wed­nes­day, armed pro­gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers forced their way in­side Venezuela’s par­lia­ment and beat up sev­eral op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers, a shock­ing at­tack that deep­ened fears of an in­creas­ingly bloody con­fronta­tion. Nearly 100 Venezue­lans have died in the past three months of po­lit­i­cal un­rest, with near-daily clashes be­tween protesters and se­cu­rity forces.

Let­ting López out of prison seems un­likely to cool the streets, an­a­lysts said, nor con­vince Maduro’s crit­ics that his gov­ern­ment has had a sud­den demo­cratic awak­en­ing.

“Did the gov­ern­ment merely do this to re­lieve some in­ter­na­tional pres­sure?” said Phil Gun­son, a Caracas-based an­a­lyst for the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group. “Seems hardly plau­si­ble, since by con­ced­ing this ma­jor point they only en­cour­age the op­po­si­tion — in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal — to go for more.”

Op­po­si­tion lead­ers pledged to con­tinue marching, urg­ing Venezue­lans to join them in “100 days of strug­gle” that would kick off with mass demon­stra­tions Sun­day morn­ing.


Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion leader Leopoldo López greets sup­port­ers Satur­day in Caracas af­ter he was re­leased from prison and placed un­der house ar­rest.

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