Venezuela braces for protest led by fugitive; US diplomats expelled
By MERY MOGOLLON AND CHRIS KRAUL | Los Angeles Times | Published: February 17, 2014
CARACAS, Venezuela — An opposition leader being hunted by authorities on homicide charges announced plans to lead a protest march Tuesday and then turn himself in to police.
Leopoldo Lopez, a former Caracas borough mayor, denies the criminal accusation made by President Nicolas Maduro, who is facing increasing criticism over his handling of the economy.
The government is blaming Lopez and other opposition leaders for inciting violence among anti-government marchers that left three dead and scores injured last week. Lopez and allies who oppose Maduro say it was armed, motorcycle-riding government vigilantes who provoked the violence.
In a video he addressed to supporters and posted on YouTube Sunday night, Lopez said he would lead a march Tuesday and then give himself up at the Interior Ministry to face what he said are bogus charges. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.
Lopez, who has not been seen in public since a news conference Wednesday night, also said that protesters would march peacefully and present demands that the government release dozens of opposition detainees.
“I am still in Venezuela and I will continue the struggle for Venezuela,” Lopez said. He added that the Interior Ministry, which controls the police, “has been converted into a symbol of persecution.”
Loyalist supporters of government are also expected to demonstrate Tuesday.
Meanwhile, protests were reported in several cities Monday, from San Cristobal, the capital of western Tachira state, to Puerto Ordaz, in the mineral-rich eastern Orinoco region. Relatives of 11 youths detained in the Valencia, a central manufacturing center, said they had been tortured and abused by authorities while in custody.
The National Press Workers Union of Venezuela reported that 11 journalists were detained from Wednesday through Sunday by police as they covered demonstrations in several cities.
The government’s communications ministry issued a statement defending Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel for having performed in front of Maduro on Wednesday on the day of the bloody protests, calling him a “moral asset.” Dudamel received criticism from opponents of the performance, which they said represented a tacit approval of the regime.
Facing a deepening crisis provoked by rising disaffection with scarcities, high inflation and rampant crime, Maduro, in a speech on national television Sunday night, offered no prospect for reconciliation and instead called on the National Guard to go into the streets to restore order “and do your job.”
The embattled president also urged supporters to “not abandon the streets” and to march on Tuesday as well.
Maduro also announced that three more U.S. diplomats attached to the American Embassy in Caracas had been expelled for alleged links with protesting student groups. He did not identify the diplomats and embassy officials didn’t immediately answer a request to identify them.
Venezuelan officials later identified the three as a second secretary, Breeann Marie McCusker, and Vice Consuls Jeffrey Gordon Elsen and Kristofer Lee Clark.
In comments to reporters Monday, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said the three U.S. Embassy staffers had 48 hours to leave the country.
Protests continued over the weekend in Caracas and other cities, resulting in dozens of injuries and arrests. The panorama is increasingly bleak in a highly polarized country in which Maduro, following the pattern of his predecessor and patron Hugo Chavez, constantly demonizes the opposition, leaving little space for mutual accommodation.
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said he was alarmed by the “senseless violence” in Venezuela and criticized Maduro for the arrests of demonstrators and for Lopez’s arrest order.
Los Angeles Times special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.