Venezuela faces chaos as opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez surrenders to authorities

Hugo Chavez’s successor as President accuses the US of fanning the flames of right-wing protest in order to remove him from office

Caracas

Venezuela is heading for further chaos as competing pro- and anti-government marches consumed the capital, Caracas, and opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, sought by the authorities on charges ranging from murder to terrorism, turned himself in for arrest.

The death toll from over a week of turmoil had risen to four. Opposition sources said a 17-year-old student protester was killed on Monday when an unidentified vehicle struck him during protests in the state of Sucre. Three others were killed last Wednesday when protests called by Lopez erupted in violence.

Before his arrest, Mr Lopez, a Harvard graduate and hard-line firebrand who heads the Popular Will Party, addressed thousands of supporters who had gathered in white T-shirts and some with makeshift gas-masks made of plastic bottles and tape, as they prepared to march on the Justice and Interior Ministry.  

"This is the first step in the construction of the road for change and it must, by necessity, be a peaceful process," he said. "If this imprisonment serves to wake up the people - to definitively wake up the majority of the Venezuelans that want change and want to build that change in peace and democracy, then this wretched jailing will be worth it."

After speaking, Mr Lopez, who had been flanked by other leaders of his party, left the platform and walked to a nearby barrier where he was bundled by police into a vehicle without incident. But by afternoon tens of thousands of supporters had jammed the capital's streets in response to his arrest, paralysing traffic and presenting a new challenge to the government. 

Meanwhile a huge crowd of Chavista pro-government protesters, some state oil workers bussed in from around the country, gathered in a central plaza of the city, dressed all in red in support of President Nicolas Maduro. Mr Lopez had earlier rerouted his march to avoid the two sides clashing on the streets. Addressing the rally, President Maduro, who this week ordered the ejection of three US consulate staff accusing them of fomenting unrest in the universities, said he wouldn't succumb to "psychological warfare" and vowed that Mr Lopez should pay for his "treasonous acts". He added: "Nobody has the right to subject families to street violence by small, armed and hooded groups that today, the 18th of February, wanted to overthrow the government. In Venezuela everyone has full political freedoms."

A student takes part in a protest against Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas (EPA) A student takes part in a protest against Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas (EPA)
The US State Department called Maduro's allegations against US diplomats "baseless and false" and urged Maduro to enter "meaningful dialogue" with the opposition. White House spokesman Jay Carney voiced concern that the government was using security forces and armed gangs to break up peaceful protests.

Among those on the streets was Bernardo Sarmiento, an import business owner who says his livelihood is threatened by government economic measures. "I want to see a liberated country," he said. "We are a strong people and we won't stand for a government that abuses its power. We aren't seeking a coup d'état today but we are seeking serious change".

In recent weeks, Mr Lopez, 42, has emerged as a hardline opponent to Mr Maduro openly calling for the removal of his socialist government. His push, mostly through mobilising a series of anti-government protests across the country, has put him at odds with the more moderate opposition wing which has been led by the 2012 presidential opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, a state governor.

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro (Reuters) Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro (Reuters)
Mr Lopez, a distant descendant of Simon Bolivar, who led the Latin American independence struggle against Spain, has stirred support, mostly from students, accusing Mr Maduro of economic mismanagement amid growing shortages of basic goods and an inflation rate of about 56 per cent. Currency controls are increasingly impeding overseas travel for middle-class Venezuelans and crime rates continue to soar. 

Mr Maduro, a former bus driver who won election to succeed Hugo Chavez after he died last year, insists Mr Lopez is behind a "right-wing, fascist" plot to overthrow him.  He escalated his anti-American rhetoric, apparently after receiving a call from a US State Department official asking him to release detainees and begin talks with the opposition, allegedly adding that  there would be "consequences" if he didn't.

"I do not accept threats from anyone in this world," Mr Maduro said on Sunday, adding that he had sent a reply to the White House. "No force will stop us Bolivarians from making justice. In Venezuela, we are ready to go to the bitter end to defend our independence and peace," said the President. 

"We are facing the activation of a political crisis intended to break the society and move the masses that follow the right wing."

Thousands of students lie on the ground during a protest in front of the Venezuelan Judiciary building in Caracas (Getty) Thousands of students lie on the ground during a protest in front of the Venezuelan Judiciary building in Caracas (Getty)
The Lopez supporters were met by thick lines of anti-riot police as they began to march down Avenue Francisco de Miranda, named after another of the first liberators of the country.  Helicopters hovered above and along the street, and every ledge and window was crammed with onlookers watching the protest.

‘The government issued its arrest warrant for Mr Lopez at the end of last week, charging him with murder stemming from the violence that broke out after last Wednesday's protest marches.  Some observers meanwhile argue that Washington’s antipathy to the Maduro government is barely disguised.

"Of course, we all know who the US government supports in Venezuela," Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, said. "They don't really try to hide it: there's $5m in the 2014 US federal budget for funding opposition activities inside Venezuela, and this is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg - adding to the hundreds of millions of dollars of overt support over the past 15 years."

The surrender of Mr Lopez, which supporters hope will help focus world attention on the conduct of the Maduro government, may only worsen tensions, particularly if he remains in custody for any length of time.

"I haven't committed any crime," Mr Lopez said in a video released to his supporters before giving himself up. "If there is a decision to legally throw me in jail, I'll submit myself to this persecution."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Sport
footballDefender's extra-time header in Capital One Cup semi-final sends Blues to Wembley
Life and Style
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Manager - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This web-based lead generation ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century