Merida, 18th February 2014 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – At a large opposition march in Caracas, far right leader Leopoldo Lopez handed himself in to the National Guard. Other large opposition and pro-government rallies and marches were held peacefully around the country.
Leopoldo Lopez and pro-opposition marches
Just after midday today, Lopez addressed the rally that he had convoked on Sunday, then handed himself over to the national guards. Anti-riot police prevented the march from reaching the justice ministry, just a few blocks from the pro-government march. Instead, it ended in Chacao.
“I hand myself over to the unjust justice [system], to a corrupt justice [system],” Lopez said.
Venezuelan courts had emitted an arrest warrant for Lopez, leader of the far right Popular Will party, for charges of instigating crime, public intimidation, damage to public property, and intentional homicide. In recent weeks he had been promoting, in public meetings and the press, an “exit” of the Maduro government, elected in April 2013. Last Wednesday three people were killed and dozens were injured in confrontations between violent opposition groups, security forces, and in a few cases, Chavista supporters.
Lopez also participated in the failed 2002 coup against then President Hugo Chavez. He arrested then internal affairs minister, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin. He was also prohibited from running for public office in 2011 after it was found he had diverted public resources while mayor of Chacao from 2000 to 2008.
On Saturday the US government criticised that there existed an arrest warrant for Lopez.
This afternoon president Nicolas Maduro said that Lopez was being taken to a “jail outside Caracas so that he pays for his actions. I can say that his mother and father, though they are against us, are aware that we are saving the life of their son”. Maduro was referring to alleged plans by people within the opposition to murder Lopez, in order to advance their cause.
Maduro said that legislator Diosdado Cabello was “personally” accompanying Lopez in order to “look out for his safety”.
The opposition also held a large and peaceful march in Merida and in other cities around the country.
“It’s now been 15 years that we’ve had this [Bolivarian government], which is practically a dictatorship,” said Jose Miguel, a modern languages student, to VA.com’s Ewan Robertson at the Merida march.
“The students rose up a week ago, but it’s not a one day struggle, maybe it will last for months. For example there are the cases of Turkey and Egypt…we want a change, a new form of government,” the student continued.
Meanwhile Yolibeth, a businesswomen, told VA.com, “We have food shortages, we have to wait in long queues [to buy products in shortages], and it’s not fair because Venezuela is a rich country”.
Marchers also mentioned inflation, corruption and high crime rates as reasons for discontent.
PDVSA workers’ march
Also today in Caracas, workers of state oil company PDVSA, organised in the FUTPV union, marched for peace and to hand over a proposal for a new collective contract. They marched from Plaza Venezuela to Miraflores Presidential Palace, and were joined by other government supporters.
“We, the petroleum workers, don’t recognise any president who hasn’t been elected by the Venezuelan people and we reserve the right to take actions in a situation where something were to occur against comrade Nicolas Maduro,” said president of the union, Wills Rangel.
“The right to subject a country to a psychological war and to psychological violence doesn’t exist,” Maduro said when he addressed the march in the afternoon.
“The only treatment to the infection that fascism is, here and in the world, is justice,” he said. “I called for dialogue with them, and they paid with violence,” he added, referring to a range of meetings he held in December and January with governors and newly elected opposition mayors, as well as with business sectors.
“If the world wants to see dialogue, here it is, with the masses, with the youth, with women, not with elites,” he said.
“This people will rise up from the north to the south to the east and the west if the bourgeoisie manage to get to power through a coup,” he concluded.
According to Correo del Orinoco, Maduro signed the PDVSA collective contract late this afternoon.
Pro-government plaza rallies
The leadership of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela organised “peace” rallies in the main plazas of the country today.
In Merida hundreds gathered throughout the day in Bolivar plaza, listening to music and speeches and reading newspapers and copies of Chavez’s ‘Blue Book’ that were handed out.
“Ever since Chavez came to power they [the opposition] have tried to make life impossible, so we couldn’t govern… we’re here today to defend the revolution,” said Luis Martinez, the Merida state government general secretary.
“Honestly, I don’t think there’s much chance that the situation the opposition are trying to create will come to much, they [the opposition] are very divided, without popular support, and Latin America is supporting us. It is a very difficult and critical moment, but like all crises, one can learn. The grassroots are the ones who are going to show their own strength,” Jose Ramon Rodriguez told VA at the rally.
“Where I live, it has been calm until last night when a few opposition supporters burnt rubbish and tires on the road near my house. I had to go out and they yelled, ‘go back to Cuba!” at me,” retired teacher, Eliodina Rangel told VA.
Last night, violent groups also attacked the state run Hotel Venetur in Merida with rocks and glass bottles, and set off an explosion in the PDVAL food program office in the small town of Tovar, in Merida state. According to the Venetur hotel manager, Leonel Matos, the violent group also threatened to set the hotel on fire.
“It’s a tense situation right now, the opposition is still doing guarimba [violent disturbances], and its clearly totally planned, orchestrated. They want people to believe that it’s the people who are angry about the economic situation, but in reality it’s the right wing continuing to attempt a coup. Merida’s women’s collective rejects this, because we have had so many elections and the opposition has lost. There are peaceful mechanisms for protesting that are in the constitution,” Kristi Morales, a member of the collective, told VA.
US and Colombia
Reacting to Sunday’s announced expulsion of three US embassy workers from Venezuela, today the State Department spokesperson, Jen Psaki said that the US government is “considering” actions against Venezuela.
Maduro expelled diplomats for allegedly “conspiring” against the government and being involved with violent opposition groups.
Psaki accused the government of using the expulsion as a “distraction”, “blaming the United States and other members of the international community for events in Venezuela”. Further, she said the Venezuelan government lacks the necessary “seriousness” to face the current situation.
Today, conservative Colombian president Juan Santos made his first comments on the situation in Venezuela, urging “the government and the opposition to dialogue” and said that “everyone has the right to protest….without violence”. He also alleged that Colombians living in Venezuela have been “deported without cause”.
“I ask president Santos, if an opposition march went to the Palace to remove him, what would he do? Enough of involving yourself in Venezuela’s internal affairs,” Maduro responded.
The government has designated major general Gustavo Gonzalez as the new director of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin). Gonzalez replaces Manuel Bernal, who only started in the position on 19 January this year.
Though there is no official statement as to why the replacement was made, the move follows the arrest of a Sebin official on Sunday, in connection with the violent clashes last Wednesday.
According to private media reports, a 17 year old protesting in Sucre state, died after he was run over during the protest late last night.
Finally, minister for communication, Delcy Rodriguez, reported this afternoon that one person had died and various people were injured when “violent groups shot at close range” today at the Textile Cooperative in Tocome, Miranda state.