LATIN AMERICA

Venezuela opposition leader challenges Maduro to arrest him

Government hunts “fascist” Leopoldo López over protest

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López at a protest in Caracas.
Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López at a protest in Caracas.Jorge Silva / REUTERS

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López said Friday he didn’t believe that President Nicolás Maduro had the “guts” to put him in jail and publicly questioned him on whether he was waiting for the go-ahead from Havana to detain him.

An arrest warrant was issued for the 42-year-old leader of the Popular Will (VP) party late Wednesday after Maduro blamed him for the nationwide anti-government street protests that turned violent, resulting in three deaths in downtown Caracas that same day.

In a nationwide address the following day, Maduro said about López that “soon he will have to get familiar with a prison because of his crimes. Rain, sleet or snow, the fascist fugitive must be made prisoner.”

Maduro also said the protest was part of an incipient coup and called on other Latin American and Caribbean nations for support.

“The conspiracy theories and rumors that US is interested in influencing the country’s internal situation are not true,” said US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf

“You don’t have the guts to throw me in jail? Or are you waiting for orders from Havana?” wrote López in his Twitter account from an undisclosed location. “I will tell you this: the truth is on our side.” The opposition has long accused Maduro and his late predecessor Hugo Chávez of taking orders from Cuba’s communist government – their chief ally.

The United States has denied any involvement in the protest which, besides the three deaths, resulted in over 500 injured protesters and 69 arrests by the government’s count (over 200 according to human rights observers).

“The conspiracy theories and rumors that US is interested in influencing the country’s internal situation are not true,” said US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf in reply to the claim by Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua that opposition leaders were being financed and directed by Washington.

On Friday, both the European Union and US State Department issued separate calls for Maduro to respect human rights, “avoid violence and resolve differences through dialogue.”

“Along with the special law that authorized Maduro to rule by decree for one year, these actions only aggravate the concerns already express by Secretary of State John Kerry in November about the weakening of democratic institutions in Venezuela,” a US State Department spokesman told Efe News Agency.

The Venezuelan National Assembly late last year gave Maduro executive powers he said were needed to fight inflation and curtail price-gouging.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan National Guard has already covered all the main seaports and airports in the country and searched the headquarters of VP, a progressive party headed by López, a former mayor of the Caracas district of Chacao.

While a VP official claimed in a Twitter message that López remained somewhere in Venezuela, the government’s number two man, Diosdado Cabello, used the same medium to assert that López had a plane ticket to the Colombian capital, Bogota, in the first flight out Friday.

Carlos Vecchio, another VP leader, said López was at home with his lawyers. Vecchio, along with the deputy María Corina Machado and the metropolitan mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma, belong to a section of the opposition that is attempting to bring down the regime through street protests.

“When we take the measures we are going to take, we will probably be accused of being antidemocratic,” admitted Jaua in a televised interview on Telesur. The first of these measures appears to be López’s arrest. The second could be blocking international television signals to prevent foreign media from bypassing the government ban like they did during Wednesday’s protests, which they covered live.

“Nobody is going to come from the outside to perturb Venezuela’s peace,” said President Maduro by way of explanation.