After several canceled attempts, former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González finally arrived in Caracas on Sunday to participate in the legal defenses of jailed Venezuelan opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma.
“A lot of dialogue is needed in Venezuela,” the former Socialist leader told reporters as he arrived at Simón Bolívar International Airport in Maiquetía, on a flight from Bogota.
Ever since González announced his intentions to travel to the country, officials in Venezuela have been trying to dissuade him
One of his first stops was the home of López, where he met with family members and lawyers for the now-jailed former mayor of the Caracas suburb of Chacao.
González later told reporters that he thought it was a “good gesture” on President Nicolás Maduro’s part to hold regional and parliamentary elections in the country this year.
Hunger strike at the Vatican
A small group of anti-Venezuelan government protestors, including two city councilors who have declared a hunger strike, gathered outside the Vatican at the weekend to demand President Nicolás Maduro release all political prisoners in their country.
Both sources at the Vatican and the Venezuelan opposition believe that Maduro canceled a scheduled meeting with the pope – apparently due to illness – to avoid having the pontiff publicly demand the liberation of the prisoners.
“The pope must know what is really happening,” said Vanesa Ledezma, whose father, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, is under house arrest. “The problem is not just with my father or with the other opposition leaders that they throw in jail without a judicial order, it is with the entire people who are prisoners in their own homes because they fear to venture out because of the violence in the country.”
Martín Paz and José Vicente García, both 29, are engineers by training.
They served on the city council of San Cristóbal, where Ceballos was mayor before he was jailed more than a year ago. Both Paz and García said that they felt they were being persecuted by the Venezuelan political police Sebin and decided to cross the border into Colombia and then fly to Rome.
“We arrived here on Thursday and the following day we went on a hunger strike in order to try to see the pope,” said García.
“Our intention was to see the pope before Maduro so that Francis would know firsthand what the real situation is like in Venezuela. There’s no doubt that [Maduro] decided not to come, not because he has the flu or an ear ache, it is because he didn’t want the pope to come out in favor of the political prisoners.
“It is sad to say but a Venezuela president left the pope hanging because he is a coward,” the councilor said.
Ever since González first announced his intentions to travel to the country, officials in Venezuela have been trying to dissuade him – Maduro, for example, had warned the former Spanish prime minister not to get involved in Venezuela’s internal affairs.
Via his Twitter account, Maduro wrote this weekend: “The Bogota-Madrid-Miami connection is acting with desperation by sending over personalities to legitimize its war against Venezuela. They want to mess with the homeland.”
The Venezuelan leader has long accused the conservative forces in Bogota and Madrid, as well as the right-wing Cuban exile community in Miami, of conspiring to oust him.
In March, González was declared persona non grata by Venezuelan lawmakers, who warned him that he may not be able to enter the country.
The former prime minister had to cancel his trip to Caracas two weeks ago after Maduro decided to postpone López’s trial for sedition and conspiracy.
López and Ceballos, who are both on hunger strike at the prisons where they are being held, were charged in connection to the February 2014 anti-government protests, at which at least 40 people died and many more were injured.
Ceballos was specifically accused of not following government orders to remove protestors’ barricades, which were set up in the streets of San Cristóbal, a city in Venezuela’s southwestern Táchira state, near the Colombian border.
While González held his first meeting with the lawyers representing the opposition leaders at López’s home in the Caracas suburb of Sebucán, Venezuelan state-run television broadcast images of pro-government demonstrations held across the country.
Crawlers on the screen read: “People reject Felipe Gonzalez’s interference,” along with the hastag #VenezuelaSeRespeta (or, Respect Venezuela).
Soon after González’s arrival, the Venezuela Supreme Court issued a statement “categorically rejecting all foreign interference in judicial affairs that are governed only and exclusively by the Venezuelan courts.”
The government has stated that González cannot participate in any of the opposition members’ trials. Lawyers and family members of the political prisoners said that he will act as an advisor but won’t litigate before the court.
Those close to López, who is president of the Voluntad Popular party, have confirmed that González has asked the government for authorization to meet with him.
In the past, the Maduro government has denied similar petitions made by former presidents of Colombia, Chile and Bolivia, who had traveled to Caracas on different occasions to try to see López.