Latin America

Fight intensifies between Maduro and opposition over political prisoners

Thousands of Venezuelans hit the streets to demand the release of jailed leaders

Demonstrators call for the release of political prisoners in Caracas on Saturday.
Demonstrators call for the release of political prisoners in Caracas on Saturday.CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS (REUTERS)

Thousands took to the streets of Venezuela’s major cities on Saturday to demand the immediate release of the country’s political prisoners.

With many dressed in white to symbolize the non-violent nature of their protest, demonstrators answered last weekend’s call by one of the highest-profile jailed leaders, Leopoldo López, to pour out on to the streets of Caracas and other large cities, despite the fact that the opposition’s umbrella coalition had failed to back his move.

The former presidents of Colombia and Bolivia were blocked from meeting with López

López, who went on a hunger strike over a week ago, is being held at the Ramo Verde military prison outside the Venezuelan capital on sedition and conspiracy charges in connection with the February 2014 nationwide anti-government protests that left at least 40 people dead and many more injured.

Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and former San Cristóbal Mayor Daniel Ceballos are also being held in separate locations for allegedly backing plans to topple Maduro’s government.

Last week, two former presidents of Bolivia and Colombia traveled to Caracas on a “humanitarian mission” to meet with the three high-profile prisoners, but were denied access to López and Ceballos, who is also on hunger strike and has since been transferred to a regular prison.

“I will tell you one thing,” said former Bolivian President Jorge Tuto Quiroga (2001-2002) “I used to deal a lot with the late President Hugo Chávez – may he rest in peace. But he never made these types of mistakes.”

Thousands took to the streets despite the failure of the opposition’s umbrella coalition to back López’s call

Even though the political prisoners have become an international embarrassment, President Nicolás Maduro has shown no signs of releasing them soon.

Quiroga and former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) were able to briefly meet with Ledezma, who has been placed under house arrest as he recovers from hernia surgery.

After announcing a hunger strike, Ceballos was on May 23 taken from his Ramo Verde jail cell and placed in a penitentiary in San Juan de los Morros, Guárico state, alongside common inmates. His head was shaved and he was reportedly given a yellow jumpsuit by prison authorities, according to a secret photo that was released. His wife and mother were only permitted to visit him for the first time this weekend.

“In these three cases, there has been differential and discriminatory treatment,” Quiroga said in an interview with EL PAÍS from his home in La Paz after his return on Sunday. “The government’s strategy is to clearly break and divide the prisoners and the opposition as well.”

Last week, the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition said it would not back López’s call to hold Saturday demonstrations because it was a unilateral decision that he had made without the support of the entire leadership.

Ceballos was taken from his military jail cell and placed in a penitentiary with common inmates

Nevertheless, thousands decided to attend the rallies in cities across the country and abroad, including in Miami.

In Caracas, where the turnout was estimated to be 20,000, some participants such as Freddy Guevara, a member of López’s Voluntad Popular party, shaved their heads in support of Ceballos.

“The regime wants to divide us, I vow unity,” López’s wife Lilian Tintori told the crowd. She has also recently been blocked from seeing her husband.

“On Friday, they told us that López was being punished because of some story that he sneaked in a cellphone,” Quiroga said.

The government said it had confiscated the phone, which contained the recording of López’s call for mass demonstrations, and decided to play the video on state-run television “to demonstrate López’s insistence on organizing a coup.”

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“They didn’t allow us to enter Ramo Verde prison because López was being punished. But if it is so bad to sneak a phone into jail, why don’t they arrest the director of the state-run television station who was broadcasting all week long the message that López recorded on the phone?” the former president asked.

“And I don’t know whose brilliant idea it was to take Daniel Ceballos to prison where common criminals are held, dress him in yellow pajamas and shave his head” in order to show – maybe inadvertently – a graphic image of repression, Quiroga added.

Opposition leader and Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles traveled to San Juan de los Morros on Saturday to try to meet Ceballos. He was also turned away but decided to stay to participate in the rally held in the city to show his support for López’s call for demonstrations despite MUD’s negative reaction.

“Unity is the key to opening these jail cells,” said Ledezma’s wife Mitzy Capriles during the Caracas rally.

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