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
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
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
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Darrell Banks’s ‘Open The Door To Your Heart’
music
News
Detective Tam Bui works for the Toronto Police force
news
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

SThree: TRAINEE RECRUITMENT CONSULTANT - IT - LONDON

£20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £50k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 bus...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 b...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'